It only took 11 years and 10 floor votes. In late November, Congress finally agreed to pay black farmers $1.15 billion in compensation for decades of discrimination in lending practices and access to U.S. agricultural subsidy programs. The claims stem from a civil-rights lawsuit settlement reached in 1999 between 400 farmers and the government.
But even as payouts begin, America’s black farmers are still losing ground – literally. “It’s not restitution for what’s been done,” says Gary R. Grant, national president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA). “Folks still don’t understand that farmers are continuing to lose.”
The number of U.S. farms operated by black farmers decreased by a staggering 97 percent between 1920 and 2007 (925,710 farms to 30,599) farms, according to government statistics.
The BFAA, a national nonprofit organization based in Tillery, N.C, with more than 1,500 members across the country, works to reverse black farmers’ losses by connecting black farmers with services and monitoring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For the newly settled lawsuit, known as Pigford II, BFAA worked with a coalition of other black farmers’ organizations to lobby for relief through Congress, Grant said. The group is now helping claimants obtain their due in the Claims Resolution Act of 2010.
The total sum to be claimed by black farmers is $1.25 billion, as Congress approved $100 million under the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. (They aren’t the only group seeing justice: The Claims Settlement Act of 2010 also included $3.4 billion in restitution for Native American farmers, who won a lawsuit against the government for losses due to mishandled trust funds. In October, another group of Native American farmers won $680 million in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the USDA.)
But Grant says that because the approaching relief is no panacea for black farmers, the organization is working to call attention to the continued decrease in black-owned farms before there are none. In October, BFAA hosted its first annual Save the Land: Black Farmers Benefit and Rally, in Tillery, to “bring awareness to the plight of the continued decline of black farmers and black land ownership.” The event consisted of local music, food and film screenings – all with justice for black farmers in mind. More than 200 people attended the event, says Grant, with representation from states across the country. One of the films, We Shall Not Be Moved: The History of the Tillery Resettlement Farm, shows pre-Civil Rights era black farmers struggling against racism and discrimination in the Tillery farm community.
The BFAA is planning additional events in 2011, perhaps in New York City or Washington D.C., to generate awareness of black land loss and empower black farmers to stand their ground. (Visit bfaa-us.org for more information.) Grant says the goal is to educate the public on the true standing of black farmers in America. “The farmers who were involved in Pigford are still trying to merely survive,” he says. “Many people don’t understand that land is not only power. It is an economic base that brings about independence and creates safe spaces for people to stand their ground.”