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  •   Glickman Targets Small Farmers for Help

    By Michael A. Fletcher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 18, 1997; Page A25

    Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday said he would seek large increases in two major farm loan programs in an effort to help minority and other small farmers struggling with agriculture's new economics and old problems of racial discrimination.

    Glickman's announcement came just hours before a 2 1/2-hour meeting with President Clinton, several members of Congress and more than a dozen farmers at the White House. The small farmers are concerned about changes in recent years that have tightened access to the nation's farm aid programs, while minority farmers are angry about what they see as USDA's slow movement to resolve more than 1,000 discrimination complaints.

    After the meeting, several black farmers and members of Congress said they are satisfied that Clinton is committed to pushing for resolution of the cases. "He promised to do everything within his legal power to resolve this situation," said Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).

    Glickman said the administration's next budget proposal will include $85 million in farm ownership loans – an 86 percent increase over current levels – and $500 million in direct operating loans, which farmers unable to obtain private credit use to finance such items as new equipment, fertilizer and seed.

    Black farmers and their advocates, however, said that by itself, Glickman's latest proposal was too little, too late.

    "This will not work, not for black farmers," said Cecil Brewington, a North Carolina farmer who said he has been turned down for USDA loans because of bias among USDA officials. "This is a system that will be set up for black farmers to fail as long as the same people are administering the program."

    For years, minority farmers and minority employees at USDA have complained about the ineffectiveness of the agency's anti-discrimination efforts. Even in many instances where investigations upheld complaints of discrimination, no compensation was awarded to complainants and no punitive action was taken against perpetrators.

    "Think of all the farmers who have lost everything," said Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), who agitated for the meeting with Clinton and has pushed legislation to aid black farmers. "I am frustrated and disappointed that justice has been delayed for these people."

    The discrimination complaints were summarized in a February report by a task force of top USDA officials who traveled the country listening to employees describe a climate of racial hostility in many of the nation's 2,500 USDA offices. The group also heard from minority farmers who charged the agency has participated in a conspiracy to foreclose on their land.

    Black farmers, in particular, say their numbers have been dwindling in large part because of discrimination by local USDA officials who operate independently of their Washington headquarters. For years, black farmers have alleged that USDA officials unfairly discouraged, delayed or denied applications for loans or subjected them to unrealistic standards when loans were approved. Blacks now make up less than 1 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farmers, and their ranks have declined at three times the rate of white farmers.

    In the wake of that report, Glickman promised to make stamping out bias a priority. But since then, the agency has closed only 141 of the 1,088 discrimination complaints on file. The agency agreed to pay a total of $3.5 million in damages in 11 of them, while the 130 others were either dismissed or ended with agreements to forgive back loans or offer priority for new loans. Other cases are pending in the courts.

    USDA officials said another 947 administrative complaints of discrimination remain unresolved, and that only 177 of those involve complaints from black farmers – a number disputed as low by black farmer advocates.

    In addition to new money for loan programs, Glickman said he would seek $10 million for training and technical assistance to minority farmers – a $7 million increase over the current funding level. He also announced the formation of a committee that will be charged with implementing civil rights policies at USDA, an agency where the complaints of discrimination have prompted some to label it "the last plantation."

    Glickman said USDA also will begin a $4 million program for Indian tribes to receive cash payments, instead of grain donations, for livestock feed losses caused by severe weather.

    "I finally smell some justice in the air at this White House," said James W. Myart Jr., a San Antonio lawyer who represents dozens of black farmers.

    Myart and other participants in the White House meeting said that Clinton asked for 30 to 40 days to attempt to resolve the outstanding cases.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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