|| Black farmers demand a level field
By ARTHUR JONES
Harold Wright has been growing tobacco, corn and soybeans in the rich south-central North Carolina soil of Bladen County for years, as did his father and grandfather before him.
Farming's variables -- the weather, market demand, financing -- affect all farmers alike, but Wright and his two farming sons, Michael and Russell, face additional difficulties. They are black.
Three dozen black farmers from Eastern states gathered outside the White House Dec. 12, as hammers pounded nails into the plywood reviewing stands for the presidential inauguration. They gathered here to drive home their charges of discrimination in the administration of federal farm programs, particularly loan programs, and to demand White House action.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture admits there is a problem. Although USDA officials told NCR the department had no plans to meet with the black farmers, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in a news release that he was ordering the department's inspector general to investigate the status of a huge backlog of discrimination complaints. In 1997, he said, 2,500 USDA supervisors at county and state offices nationwide will have to participate in outreach forums.
On Dec. 18, following a series of meetings between the National Black Farmers Association, the White House and USDA officials, Agriculture Secretary Glickman suspended government foreclosures on all farms nationwide until the USDA could investigate the racial discrimination charges.
The problem, as black farmers see it, is that discrimination at the local level -- long waiting periods for loans or outright rejection of black applicants -- has forced black farmers out of business.
Consequently, Glickman's statement did little to assuage the frustrations of people like National Black Farmers' Association leader John W. Boyd Jr., organizer of the protest. They want remedial action, including the return of foreclosed farms to their black owners and the suspension of current pending foreclosures.
USDA statistics tell much of the story -- the number of white farms has declined by 14 percent in the past decade; the number of farms operated by African-Americans, by 43 percent.
Wright, who wants to see his own sons self-sufficient as farmers, provided an example. Michael was in his early teens when he began farming at his father's side. At age 20, still single, he applied for a loan to add land to acreage he had begun farming himself in 1986. "We talked to the government about getting a loan to purchase some land," said Harold Wright, but the local farm agency said Michael was too young and unmarried.
Wright said he doesn't believe a young white farmer would get the same answer. "I've seen where young white farmers have gone out there and started with nothing. They've bought farms, new equipment and got into farming business," said Wright, "and over the years get the attitude, 'We don't have nothing to lose -- we started with nothing. If we lose these farms we don't have nothing tied up in it.'
"It's just tough, you know, favoritism," said Wright. "Just tough."
White-owned farms are increasing in size. Black-owned farms generally are not because black farmers are kept out of the loop when white farmers retire or sell off land. In many places, black farmers are kept from preapproved loans when land is on the market.
"We can't even bid when land is available because they won't approve us for a loan to buy it," Michael said. Black farmers have to provide more collateral for loans than do whites, said his father. "There's a little bit of prejudice in it, even in the government aspect of it," said Harold Wright.
"We've lost a lot of black farmers on account of their not being able to get operating capital," he continued. "They'll loan you a small amount of money -- but as far as being able to purchase land or tobacco quotas or keeping equipment updated, no.
"We're the only black farmers in our area," said Wright.
"Back 15 years ago there were 10 black farmers."
Will protests make a difference? "Any kind of media helps," Wright said. "There's lots of things people here [in Washington] don't know anything about."
Black farmers' leaders met briefly with White House officials to press their case.
National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997