Congress misses deadline for payments to black farmers

Robert Binion, at microphone, a farmer from Clanton, Ala., speaks at a February rally outside the Department of Agriculture.
Robert Binion, at microphone, a farmer from Clanton, Ala., speaks at a February rally outside the Department of Agriculture. (J. Scott Applewhite/associated Press)

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

The federal government promised last month to pay more than $1 billion by the end of March to tens of thousands of black farmers who had filed decades-old discrimination complaints against the U.S. Agriculture Department.

But Congress headed home for a two-week recess without appropriating the money, and the farmers are frustrated that the agreement's March 31 deadline was not met. The White House and congressional leaders say they want to pay the restitution, but farmers in the case say the government has been slow to deliver.

"The administration announced this settlement like this was all over, but we haven't gotten a dime," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "Right now, it's planting time, and we thought we would have the funds in time for this season."

Boyd said he is sure the government and the farmers will be able to agree on an extension to the settlement, which compensates black farmers who were unfairly denied farm operating loans. But he is worried that with a tight budget and busy schedule, the farmers' case -- known as Pigford -- will continue to be overlooked when Congress returns.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent letters last month to congressional leaders, who have been embroiled with health care legislation, asking them to appropriate money for the settlement, and said this week that resolving cases of discrimination is a department priority.

The White House is also "working with Congress with some urgency to get this done as fast as possible," deputy press secretary Bill Burton said.

Native American farmers, who filed an unresolved lawsuit alleging discrimination against the USDA in 1999, are watching the Pigford settlement closely. Court proceedings in the case of Native American farmers, known as Keepseagle, have been put on hold while they negotiate with the government. The deadline for a settlement in their case is April 21.

Late last week, Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) -- co-chairmen of the Congressional Native American Caucus -- sent a joint letter to Vilsack and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for an update on the case and saying Native American farmers and ranchers had "lost substantial revenues and lands that had been in their families for generations" because of years of "offensive discrimination."

The Keepseagle case is not contingent on congressional approval, unlike Pigford, and if the settlement deadline is not met, the case could go to trial in district court.

"All our clients seek is to have their claims compensated at a level that is comparable to the settlement in the Pigford case," said Joe Sellers, lead attorney for the Native American farmers. "There's still several weeks before the stay is due to expire where we can make progress. I know our clients are frustrated, [but] they haven't given up hope."


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