It's 6 a.m., and the farmer is ambling over to his dusty blue pickup. The morning Virginia light is gauzy and soft. He has knee problems and a sore back and blood pressure ailments. Four hours ago, he returned from New Jersey, where he'd gone with his son, hauling trees and shrubbery -- a little sideline gig to make extra cash. "It's war, man, trying to keep going like we do," he says.

He's got fields to check on now and fertilizer to lay down. He's got a couple of boiled eggs in his belly and a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands -- and he's praying harder for his skeleton crew to show up on time than he is for rain.

His wife wonders how he does it: the constant going, the lack of sleep. He fell from the tractor two months ago. Lay in the field like a lamb, twisting around in the high weeds, unable to move for a couple of hours. He was lucky: It was only cracked ribs. In the emergency room, he was bandaged and told to get some rest. He was sofa-bound all of one day. Then Ricky Haynie hobbled back into the fields his family has been farming since Emancipation.

He's only 50, yet it's been years since he was king of Northumberland County, leasing thousands of acres of land and planting them with soybeans, corn, wheat and barley. He was the most ambitious black farmer Virginia's Northern Neck had ever seen. Now he's broke and in a torturous legal battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a fate shared by thousands of other black farmers around the country.

Many have been victims of what the USDA itself describes as "indifference and blatant discrimination" against blacks in federal lending practices and programs from 1981 to 1996. When the USDA settled a class-action discrimination lawsuit five years ago, the agreement was hailed as a civil rights landmark that could reap more than $2 billion in damages for beleaguered black farmers. But most of the money didn't come, and this summer the Environmental Working Group, which conducted a two-year probe of the settlement and its aftermath with the help of the National Black Farmers Association, issued a scathing report charging that the USDA had paid $12 million in legal fees to thwart giving thousands of black farmers their settlement money. "Instead of processing claims as promised," the report states, "USDA used the full weight of the federal government against African American farmers it had already discriminated against."

Just last month, another class-action lawsuit was filed against the USDA on behalf of blacks who farmed between 1997 and 2004. It charges that the USDA continues to discriminate against black farmers and has retaliated against those who collected payments from the 1999 settlement.

None of this surprises Ricky Haynie. "Those black farmers who agreed to that [1999] settlement," he says, "were being led down a terrible road."

Haynie opted out of the class-action suit; in 2000, he filed his own $12 million lawsuit against the USDA, charging that the agency cut off his access to federal loans because he was black, which made it impossible for him to get his crops planted on time and operate profitably. Haynie is more than $3.6 million in debt and hoping for a decision soon. "I just wanna be free," he says.

It's now hours beyond morning, and he's gearing up to spray pesticide across a field. On paper at least, Haynie still owns 125 acres of land, though the USDA has liens against it. He makes ends meet by helping his son P.J. Haynie, who leases and farms 1,800 acres of rich Virginia soil.

"I've survived by the grace of God," Haynie says, a black man in a green field with the bright sun on his face. "By now, I should have been gone."

THE FARMER -- HAZEL EYES, THICK BUILD, MEDIUM HEIGHT, MELODIOUS SOUTHERN VOICE -- doesn't sit for an interview. You have to hop in the pickup with him early in the morning. He's got acres to check, more fertilizer to put down, workers to check on. He's in Heathsville right now, rumbling along.

"This was my great-grandfather's land," Haynie says, pointing to a field he owns. "This was the first piece of property a black man owned in this whole county."

His great-grandfather Robert Haynie was born a slave in 1823 on Virginia's Northern Neck, where the land is sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and Rappahannock River. He got his freedom after Emancipation, then scrounged and saved enough to buy 60 acres in Northumberland. He farmed and preached -- and built the Macedonia Baptist Church, which still stands today -- and thus he believed in two things: the land and his Bible. "For we are but of yesterday," he was fond of saying, quoting Job in alluding to the family's precious heritage.

Haynie pauses at the edge of the field his great-grandfather farmed, then shifts the pickup into gear and says, "It's amazing how close we are to slavery." Soon he's rolling down another road, history on his mind. "I remember going to the doctor with my grandparents, seeing signs, 'Colored,' 'White.' Remember it like it was yesterday."

Ricky Haynie was born in the spring of 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. His given name was Philip, but everyone called him Ricky to separate him from his father.

The first seven years of his life he lived with his grandparents. His grandfather Harvey J. Haynie had a big white horse, called Pat, and Ricky sometimes still sees the two of them in his dreams, out there in the fields, a man and his mount blending with the land like wedded partners in a slow dance. Little Ricky looked at the horse with awe, his granddaddy atop it, the land spreading out from them. The life lessons began early, he says: "My grandfather taught me how to count money by selling watermelons and cantaloupes outside, on the roadside."

When Haynie was in eighth grade and back living with his parents, their house in Reedville burned down because of an electrical mishap. He was in school at the time. "All you had was the clothes on your back," he says of the aftermath. The family rented a home while they rebuilt. Everyone did something to pitch in. After school, Ricky -- the oldest of four children -- would go down to the fish market and work, cleaning fish, rubbing elbows with older black men. He put the dollar bills he earned into the family kitty to buy bricks and mortar.

"I'd go to school smelling like fish," he says. "Kids would laugh at me. It didn't matter. I knew what I had to do."

It took four years to get another house built. Ricky's mother, Gladys, taught grade school. Ricky's father, Phil, farmed with joy in his eyes. And on those occasions when the Haynies would be together in the fields -- grandfather, father, grandson -- Ricky felt like a prized pupil, learning from his elders. "When I was growing up in the '50s," he says, "I saw proud black men. They had a little land, a little of this and a little of that. Proud black men who stood for something."

In 1972, Haynie enrolled at what is now Virginia State University in Petersburg, 100 miles from home. But he never spent one weekend on campus because he always returned home to farm. He and his father had begun a pig operation.

"We'd raise pigs, up to 40 pounds, then sell 'em," he recalls, Virginia wind in his face, his left arm hanging lazily out the truck window. "Once a month, I'd get up at 2 in the morning, load my pigs, drive to Petersburg to the livestock market, unload my pigs, drive back to the dorm and take a shower -- then go to class." There was never an ounce of sympathy from his father, Haynie says. "My father knew it was hard on me, but farming all around is hard."

He majored in animal science and was accepted to Tuskegee Institute's School of Veterinary Medicine. But he'd see his father in the fields, back bent, the years taking their toll. "I looked at my father and the situation he was in and said to myself, If I go to Tuskegee, that would be the end of Haynie farming. I chose family over money."

His family farmed 70 acres and owned 40 brood sows, an average-size pig operation. But Ricky Haynie wanted more. He wanted to extend the reach of Haynie land. At night, after he had climbed down off the tractor, he'd devour farm magazines. The stories about big farms fascinated him -- how families acquired those farms, held onto them, expanded them. He would read until he dozed off, and in the fields the next morning, he would still be thinking about what he had learned. He saw land spread out like vistas; he wanted to be able to ride down county roads and look to the left and see land that was his, then look to the right and see more land that was his.

In 1979, he found an old dairy farm, shuttered, in Reedville. He and his father drove out to look the place over. They stood staring at the land and the big house on it. This wasn't a little piece of land; a little of this and a little of that. This was vista-like: 180 acres.

"You'll be doing something great by acquiring this piece of property," Phil Haynie said to his son, "because at one time your ancestors were slaves on it."

Ricky went to the USDA and secured a $350,000 starter loan. "There was a key to my getting that early loan," Haynie says. "Out of the three committee members who had to approve me for loan eligibility, two were black. So I was blessed." He got himself a farm and new farm equipment. At age 25, he was on his way.

RICKY HAYNIE WAS MARRIED BY THEN. He had met Judith Scott at Virginia State his freshman year. They bumped into each other in the agriculture building. She was a junior majoring in microbiology; her dad farmed vegetables.

Her future husband, Judith Haynie says, "was not into any sports or Greek organizations. But he could tell you where every tractor-trailer dealer or farm appliance dealer was."

His work ethic astounded her. Their outings often began in his pickup truck. "A couple of our dates ended up being us taking pigs to the market, and I'd ride with him," she says. "One morning, 4 in the morning, he got some pigs to take to the market. He sold all the pigs except one. It was too small. So we ride back to campus. He left the one pig in the back of the pickup truck. Well, the pig got out and was running around campus. Some of my girlfriends said to me: 'Hey Judy, isn't that your pig? Isn't your boyfriend the pig farmer?' "

She was crazy about the pig farmer.

They married in 1975, on the lawn of her mother's home in Suffolk. Judith had asked Ricky what he wanted for a wedding gift. He had said a cow would be nice. She thought he was kidding, but he was not. And on their wedding day there he was, smiling at her, looking at the calf she had gotten for him. The newlyweds tromped around in the soft earth after their ceremony, putting up a fence for the gangly thing.

The Haynies had six children: Phil Jr., whom everyone calls P.J., Merthia, Jennifer, Harvey, Kimberly and Roslyn. By the time their youngest was born in 1986, Ricky's farming ambitions were in freefall. And so was his family.

HAYNIE'S HOME ON WHAYS CREEK ROAD IN REEDVILLE looks like something sprung from the mind of Margaret Mitchell. There are big white pillars, a lovely wide porch, a long gravel driveway. Haynie aims to plant trees to line the driveway.

"I always tell people life is good on the plantation," he says, pausing for effect, "if you own the plantation."

His office is less than 40 yards behind the home in an old weathered house, where there are mounds of paper on wooden desks and maps on the wall that show the location of Haynie's fields. There's rusted farm equipment outside -- huge tractors, trucks, truck parts, reminders of the days when things were better. Haynie pops into the office, takes a couple of phone calls -- one about an unpaid bill -- then lurches for the door. Back to work.

"When I get on my feet, man, I'm gonna get some of this stuff out of here," he says, surveying the rusted tools and equipment that look like museum pieces, stepping around them, angling for his truck.

Later in the day, he'll be taking one of his flatbed trailers to Montross, where it will be loaded with cargo trailers, which he also transports. Two nights ago, he hauled some lumber over to Delaware. He's a man with two lives -- one at night, earning money that helps keep him afloat; one during the day, doing what he feels he was born to do: farm. Now, he's in a field atop a tractor, back and forth, up and down the rows, skipping lunch, not caring about lunch, disappearing into the sunlight.

IN THE BEGINNING, RICKY HAYNIE LOOKED UNSTOPPABLE. After he acquired the dairy farm in 1979, his father asked a friend, Gene Daniel, who worked as a cooperative extension agent for a program based at Virginia Tech, to talk to his son, impart whatever wisdom about farming he could.

Haynie was a man seized with passion, Daniel says: "He was always looking for a bigger and better way of doing things. He had zero fear about getting in over his head."

By 1980, he was leasing 400 acres of land in addition to the 180 acres he'd purchased. A farmer got big by growing; it took money, loans, to keep growing.

Haynie talked to his father often, but more and more he began to corral Daniel. Daniel had research papers, data, knowledge about what the future might hold for a farmer. "He'd ask for an appointment with me," Daniel says. "And he'd leave word for me to meet him in some field, seven miles west of some road. At 3:15. Well, he'd be right there, at 3:15. He'd say, 'Gene, I got four minutes. Now, I'm thinking of renting this land over here, and I need to know what do you think?' I'd tell him, and then he'd drive off."

There were more than 40 black farmers in the area then, according to Daniel. Some of them knew Haynie's father, some knew his grandfather. But he was going to be different. He was going to be bigger.

From 1980 to 1982, Ricky borrowed money and gobbled up land to lease. By the summer of 1981, the USDA had lent him and his wife more than $1 million, much of it through the Farmers Home Administration, or FmHA, which was created to provide federal loans to low-income farmers.

"I'm doing well," Haynie recalls of that time. "I'm getting loans, harvesting in the fall and paying my loans back."

But other farmers -- white farmers -- started murmuring about Haynie's relentless hunger to lease more land, says Daniel, himself white. "There was, at that time, lingering overtones of racism in the area," Daniel says. "Large white family farmers weren't used to seeing aggressive black farmers. They were used to seeing passive black farmers who were just holding on."

Haynie leased 600 acres, then 1,000. Soon he was up to 2,000 acres. One morning in 1981, Haynie noticed holes on the side of his tractors. Bullet holes. He and Judith called the police. An investigation yielded nothing, but the incident unsettled the Haynies.

Later that year someone set a fire on their property in the middle of the night. It would be followed 20 months later by another mysterious fire. In the first fire, Haynie's hog barn and 950 pigs were burned alive. In the second fire, he lost thousands of dollars worth of farm equipment. Insurance didn't fully cover the cost of replacing the pigs and the equipment, Haynie says.

Investigations into the fires yielded no arrests. "At the time," Haynie says, "I feared for the safety of my wife and children."

The tension grew worse when white farmers circulated a petition alleging that Haynie was exaggerating his need for loans. "They were saying that I was outbidding them on land, that I was paying more than they were able to pay," Haynie says.

Some of the land was rented to him by Walter Goodman, a large white landowner. Goodman says he was astonished by the petition and the animosity toward Haynie. "You have to realize," says Goodman, now 82, "that the Northern Neck is a very strange location. It was about 40 to 50 years behind the civil rights movement. And Ricky just wasn't what whites expected: He was well-educated and ambitious. They accused him of incompetence, which was just not so."

The charges made by the other farmers wound up in the hands of the USDA, where they were investigated. Nothing came of them.

"There was never that one moment when you could put your fingers on a conspiracy against him," Goodman says. "But he just never got the cooperation [from the USDA] other farmers got. The kid really worked his heart out, but he didn't have a chance."

Despite everything happening around him, Haynie kept leasing more land and planting more crops. Eventually, he was up to 3,000 acres. "I was determined not to be run out," he says.

Daniel watched in amazement as Haynie kept growing. "He said to me: 'I'm going to be the biggest farmer in the area.' And that's pretty much what happened," Daniel says. "He was so passionate. Sometimes it scared me."

TOWARD THE END OF 1982, a strange thing happened to Haynie. The government refused to lend him any more money. "They said I had maxed out my loan eligibility," Haynie says. "They said I had outgrown a family farm."

Haynie traces much of this to the arrival of a white man, John Slusser, as the USDA's district director for the Northern Neck. Slusser replaced a black man, Barry Wright, who had approved previous loans to the Haynies, according to Haynie's lawsuit.

Slusser seemed to have no interest in helping Haynie expand, Haynie says. "Slusser," he recalls, "once said to me, 'Boy, the best thing you can do is file bankruptcy and get out of farming because you're not gonna make it.' "

The term "boy" can be construed as a epithet in the South when uttered by a white man. Slusser denies saying that to Haynie and remembers their encounters far differently.

"I think he was treated fairly in terms of everyone else, black or white," says Slusser, now town manager for Warsaw, Va. "I will say that Mr. Haynie's situation was probably not helped by the office workload -- by what the staff at that time could handle -- and by its inability to spend more time with him.

"Was it harder for Ricky than anybody else?" Slusser says. "I suppose it was harder for him, but I don't know if it was all due to race. I do know he took on more than the average farmer did. Look, I want to be candid. It was a difficult situation Ricky found himself in. And I don't think the fault was all Ricky's. I think the FmHA failed a lot of people. Some of the loans they gave out, well, it was like sugarcoated poison. A farmer would run into problems year to year and find himself with all kinds of debt from earlier loans."

Slusser doesn't believe Haynie was a victim of discrimination. "I don't think I ever witnessed any overt discrimination," he says. "But just as with anybody, there probably was a percentage of people -- black and white -- who were gonna be jealous of him."

Without access to USDA loans, Haynie had to obtain commercial loans at exorbitant interest rates just to cover the planting season, he says. "Instead of paying 3 percent interest, I was suddenly paying 24 percent. I had to go get outside monies. It was like cutting a man's hands off and telling him to swim the English Channel."

Like many other farmers, Haynie depended on credit every year to buy the seed, fertilizer and equipment needed to plant and tend his crops. Any difficulty or delay in getting loans at the beginning of planting season was disastrous. "By getting loans late," he explains, "it means you have to plant late. Once you plant late, you reduce your yield. They make you late so you won't be profitable."

As Haynie's debts ballooned, the USDA put a lien on his holdings -- his land, his farm equipment and other assets. Haynie eventually complained to the USDA in Washington, alleging discrimination in being denied loans. But by then its civil rights division, under the Reagan administration, had been closed.

His case gained new life during the Clinton years. Rosalind Gray, the USDA's civil rights chief for part of the Clinton administration, says she found clear evidence that Haynie had been discriminated against when he was denied loans. Gray, now a legal consultant who still works on farm issues, recommended a settlement for Haynie. But the USDA general counsel's office refused. "They didn't think it was discrimination," says Gray, who still doesn't understand why. She helped win approval for a $340,000 settlement for P.J. Haynie after he complained about the same kind of loan discrimination as his father in a separate lawsuit.

Because there was no new government loan money, the Haynie family fortunes took a severe downturn in the 1980s. Ricky started his trucking business to earn extra money.

"We were managing, with my salary," recalls Judith, a high school science teacher. "We basically lived off of my salary. All of our resources went into farming."

She felt increasingly torn between her husband's land dreams and the racial animosity that seemed to be aimed at them. She wondered at what price her husband was continuing to farm. "I can't say I really knew and understood his love of farming," Judith says.

Her anxieties grew worse after the sudden death of their fourth child. On September 16, 1983, Judith had given birth to a son, Harvey, named after Ricky's grandfather. The farmer in Ricky had been hoping for another boy. Then, in the middle of the night on November 24, Ricky went to check on the baby. "I picked him up, and he wasn't responding," Haynie says. A doctor was quickly summoned, but the baby, just 2 months old, was dead.

The farmer shooed the undertaker away and drove his dead son to Richmond himself for the autopsy. The cause of death: sudden infant death syndrome.

Judith never really got over losing Harvey. Then the phone calls started coming. She would be sitting at home, in the quiet of an evening, her husband in the fields. The phone would ring. She'd pick it up and say hello, but the person on the other end of the line wouldn't speak. She was unnerved by the calls but didn't want to bother Ricky.

In 1986, pregnant for the sixth time, a feeling of desperation began to set in, she says. She feared losing another child. She feared staying on the farm.

One day that summer, Ricky was coming home, up the gravel road to his plantation. Had it on his mind he was going to buy himself a granary. Things would change, fortunes would get better, he just knew. He was determined to ignore all the gossip -- coming from whites and some blacks, he imagined as well -- that Ricky Haynie was uppity, was suffering a downfall because he had tried to lease up the whole damn county. He got halfway up the driveway that day and saw a U-Haul truck pulled up to the door. "I remember thinking: 'Awww, no, what has Judith bought now! She knows money is tight.' "

His three girls, clutching doll babies, and P.J were sobbing. Judith and the kids were leaving Ricky. She had never forgotten the bullet holes, the fires and, finally, the strange phone calls. Worries about her pregnancy overwhelmed her. The whole farm had simply started to spook her.

Ricky raised his arms to hug her, hold her back, but he couldn't stop her -- she was going. Land was land -- dirt and history; children were flesh and bone -- life.

"Judy said to me, 'I'm not going to risk losing another child behind this farm.' " He watched the U-Haul pull away, his children twisting in their seats to look back at him.

"When I went into the house that night," he says, "it felt like I went into a tomb -- with the door closing behind me."

RICKY HAYNIE'S CELL PHONE RINGS. It disappears into his big farmer's hands like a hurt bird. "Going to see Reverend Jones tomorrow," he says, clicking shut the phone. "A great man. You should come. Lives over in Gloucester. 'Bout to lose his farm, though."

The next morning he's up, as always, before the sun. Gulping down breakfast, shirttail hanging out, hat on at a raffish angle. He checks in on his workers. One didn't show, so a six-man field crew has to get by with five workers today.

"You know that song by Beyonce, 'I'm a Survivor'? Well, that's what I am," Haynie says, "a survivor." Then he's off, riding down two-lane roads to Gloucester, 50 miles away, to visit Nathaniel Jones, an elderly black farmer.

There are newspapers three months old in his pickup. Never enough time to read, always another field to check. Ricky Haynie will ride through Virginia and scan fields the way parents scan crowds looking for their children.

"I used to farm up here," he says, passing through Kilmarnock. He'll say the same thing later, while passing through Irvington. He farmed in five counties at the height of his career.

Jones lives at the end of Arkansas Farm Road, which Haynie's pickup is creeping down. "You know how you look at people and have your heroes?" he asks, before reaching the farmhouse. "Well, this guy is my hero. He's a survivor. He didn't just say, 'Take my property, and I'm gonna lay down and die.' "

Jones is seated at the dining room table. He is wearing suspenders, and they hitch his pants up chest-high. His watch is wrapped around the cuff of his shirt.

"My daddy was born a slave," the old farmer says, his voice a deep rasp.

"I'm 96," he says.

"No you're not!" comes a voice from a backroom. "You're 98."

It's his wife, Geneva.

"That's right, 98," he agrees.

She's coming into view, holding onto walls, guiding herself with her hands and by her husband's voice. Geneva Jones is blind.

"This is my second wife," he says. "The other wife passed 20 years ago. Can't get along without a woman." Jones also has a son and goes to visit him when he can. The son lives in a nursing home.

He has been farming most of his life. "Sometimes," Jones says, "I feel sorry I didn't take another course in life other than farming. Maybe I should have taught school. But I had land, and I had tractors. And you know something, sometimes it's just a pleasure listening to the tractor run down the field."

Even at 98, he still wants to farm. "Got some weeds out there I need to burn," Jones says. "I'm afraid of fire, though. I do plan to plant some sweet potatoes. I had some collard greens last year. I plan to put a few in this fall." But these are words from a man's heart and not his head. It has been years since Jones has been able to make decent money from farming.

He is among the 94,000 black farmers who sought compensation from the USDA after the class-action lawsuit was settled in 1999. Under the terms of the settlement, many black farmers were entitled to at least $50,000. So far, however, the USDA has rejected almost 90 percent of their claims, according to the Environmental Working Group study. Most farmers were turned away because they were misinformed about the filing deadline. Others were denied damages because they lacked enough documentation of their loan history, according to the group's report.

The Joneses say they still haven't heard whether they will receive a settlement that can help them pay off their farm-incurred debts. Until then, they eke by on Social Security.

"They're supposed to give me $50,000," Nathaniel Jones says. "That's what I'm looking for. If I can get that, I can keep going. Actually, I'm going to keep going anyhow. But I tell you, it's rough going."

He used to count several dozen black farmers in the area. "I don't think there's more than two or three black farmers around here anymore," he says.

"Here in Gloucester?" his wife says, in a startled voice. "We don't have any."

"Oh, no? None? George Davenport?" he wonders.

"He's gone," she says.

"Oh, that's right, he is gone. And my son-in-law, Charlie Carter, he even stopped farming," he says.

Haynie has cupped his face in the palm of his hand at the other end of the dining table, silently listening. He visits the Joneses a few times a year, helping them plant their meager crops. The scene -- the old man atop his tractor, his sightless wife at the window -- fairly breaks his heart.

Of the life Jones has lived, he wonders how much might be left. "If I stay here till October 12," he says, "I'll be 99. Never knew the Lord would keep me on this road this long. You never know what's on your road." Geneva Jones smiles, nodding her head ever so slightly.

Husband and wife stand at the back door to say goodbye to Haynie. They seem as connected as tree and shade.

Haynie heads home in his pickup. "Man, I just cry every time I come down here," he says. He's quiet for a while. Then, "The vultures are on the fence, waiting on him to -- " He can't finish the sentence. Another spell of silence, then, "The question I keep asking myself is, How am I gonna not end up like Reverend Jones?"

AS PLAIN AND SIMPLE AS THE WORD MIGHT SEEM -- farming -- it has never been so for the black farmer.

After the Civil War, blacks were under the impression that land confiscated from Confederate plantation owners would go to them. It didn't happen. Lincoln's dictum -- 40 acres and a mule -- also failed to materialize. Instead, many blacks became sharecroppers, tenant farmers who forked over a portion of their crops to their mostly white landlords in lieu of rent. Sharecropping was hardly a basis on which to build black land ownership.

Even when black farmers managed to buy their own land, they had trouble getting the credit they needed to make ends meet. And they faced the same problems that plague all small farmers and drive many out of business: drought, floods and other weather-related disasters; sudden plunges in crop prices; increased competition from abroad; difficulty finding help at harvest time, and the relentless corporatization of farming. As a result, the number of black farmers in the United States has plummeted from almost 1 million in the 1920s to fewer than 30,000 today.

Black farmers say they always knew the deck was stacked against them at the USDA. They've never forgotten the crude racial joke uttered by then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1976. "Do you know what a black man wants?" Butz asked, and, answering his own question, here sanitized, said, "Loose shoes, [good sex] and a warm place to [defecate]."

When the remark became public, Butz was forced to resign. But the department he ran remains a bastion of racism, black farmers and their advocates say. "That's the culture that existed, and still does," says Lloyd Wright, who served as director of civil rights for the USDA from 1997 to 1998. "It hasn't changed."

"The civil rights changes and processes we instituted in headquarters had little impact on employees or county commissioners out in the field who approved loans," says Rosalind Gray. "Most of these county commissioners are white, and the commissions are locally controlled. It is business as usual out there."

Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the USDA, disagrees with that assertion. He points to a recently begun program where the department immediately notifies minority farmers of programs they may be eligible to participate in. "Historically, the claim has been that the department didn't notify minority farmers of certain programs," Loyd says. "What USDA has been focused on is exploring any avenue to provide opportunities to the small and minority farmer. We want to see every farmer successful."

In 1997, a group of black farmers banded together and filed their lawsuit against the USDA, long derided by blacks as "the last plantation." At the time, Haynie was serving as vice president of the National Black Farmers Association, which organized protests outside the USDA's imposing fortress on Independence Avenue in Southwest Washington. Haynie would show up at the protests with a mule named Struggles, a living symbol of the frustrations of black farmers.

In 1999 -- under intense political pressure -- the USDA agreed to a settle the suit. Black farmers who qualified for settlement money were put on two tracks. Track A was for small farmers like Nathaniel Jones, who had minimal paperwork documenting loan discrimination. Those farmers were eligible for $50,000 and debt forgiveness. Track B was reserved for bigger farmers who'd had more extensive dealings with the USDA and were potentially eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement money.

It was expected that the court settlement would yield more than $2 billion for black farmers. However, only $650 million has been paid out to them. "Three out of four dollars expected was never received," says Arianne Callender, author of the Environmental Working Group report.

Callender says black farmers, especially those choosing Track B, found themselves in a strange predicament when it came to documenting discrimination. "The farmers found out they had to ask the local USDA to help provide them with proof of discrimination . . . So a farmer had to go to the very people who discriminated against them 20 years ago. They essentially had to say: 'Please help me provide my case against you.' " Only 18 of the 173 farmers who pursued compensation under Track B have won compensation, the study found.

Neither track appealed to Ricky Haynie. "He had a lot more at stake," says Ellen Steury, one of his attorneys at the Washington firm of Steptoe & Johnson. "He believes he's the minority farmer with the largest debt in the whole country."

Haynie filed his own lawsuit four years ago, demanding $12 million and the forgiveness of his entire debt.

"The government says even without discrimination, he was a failed farmer," says Steven Davidson, another of Haynie's attorneys. "Well, he was the most successful African American farmer in the Northern Neck -- maybe all of Virginia. But for discrimination, he would have continued like the white farmers and become quite successful.

"He had gotten 'too big,' " Davidson says, "which is just a code word for discrimination."

The USDA cannot comment specifically about Haynie's case "because of pending litigation," says Ed Loyd. "Each case is looked at based upon its own merit as to something that should be settled or litigated."

Gray, the former USDA civil rights official who got to know Haynie during her investigations of his complaints, believes he would have been successful if he hadn't taken government loans. "He was competent and intelligent," she says. "His interactions with USDA resulted in a loss of his land. I think the worst thing that ever happened to him was that he interacted with USDA on those business loans. I hope he has the fortitude to survive the damage."

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS AS IF HAYNIE IS FARMING as much for the dead -- his mother, the baby Harvey, his grandparents -- as he is for the living. "It's everything my father, grandfather and great-grandfather stood for," he says of his passion for the land. "Their whole life is wrapped up in all of this."

In 1993, Haynie married again. Gail Walker worked for the Virginia Cooperative Extension -- an arm of the USDA -- in Heathsville, teaching local farmers about personal finance. She had heard of Ricky Haynie before she laid eyes on him. She and one of her co-workers assumed that he was white. "It was because he was such a big farmer," Gail Haynie says now. "Most black farmers didn't have a whole lot."

His financial entanglements didn't deter Gail from marrying him. Beside her on her wedding day stood a man who could get no more loans, a man rising in the mornings looking for justice. "I didn't know how bad it really was," she says. "He was just such a good person. I didn't ask a lot of questions."

They wed at Macedonia Baptist Church, the church founded and built by Haynie's great-grandfather. They were, in some ways, a peculiar couple: She was working for the USDA, the very agency her husband loathed, the very agency he would go to Washington to protest against with other black farmers. "Initially," she says, "I was very embarrassed. I didn't want to be part of that. I was thinking of my job status with my agency."

She would ride by on her lunch break and see him out in the fields. He was too busy to stop and have lunch with her. As if the land might vanish if he hopped down off the tractor. "He wants to sustain the land," she says. "He wants a portion of this to go to the next generation. He doesn't want to be the one who lost it."

Two years after their marriage, Gail Haynie came up with an idea to start a business of her own, a grain and fertilizer company. But in 1996, with his financial situation getting even more desperate, Ricky Haynie filed for bankruptcy. The trustee dragged his wife's business interests into the case. Gail Haynie soon found herself in a legal nightmare and determined that her only way out was to file bankruptcy herself.

"The trustees for the case seemed relentless in making sure they got all they could," Gail Haynie says. "They just kept coming." Three years ago, she went to her lawyer's office to discuss the case, feeling as if her own life were now unraveling. Her blood pressure began to rise during the visit, her doctors told her later.

When she returned to work that day, "I said to myself, 'Something is not quite right with this eye.' " She left work and went to the eye doctor, who told her to get to the hospital. She had no vision in her right eye. Gail Haynie had had a stroke in her lawyer's office. She remains blind in one eye. "I don't know," she says, slowly "It wasn't supposed to be like this."

The Haynies' lawsuit against the government might reach court by early next year. "It's unreal," Gail Haynie says. "I think the government is planning to wait us out. They've paid a lot of black farmers $50,000, and they've gone on their way. Fifty-thousand hardly buys a tractor."

RICKY HAYNIE RUMBLES ALONG IN HIS PICKUP, carrying a load of fertilizer that smells something awful.

"You know what my gravest fear for black people is?" he asks. "That we'll end up on reservations. That we won't own any land." His face has gone slack. "We're consumers, not producers." He's heading north in the pickup now. "We've been brainwashed," he says, "about farming as a race of people: 'It's hard, it's dirty.' "

He can sound weary when talking about race, as if the world has gone deaf on the issue. "There are some good white farmers who've helped me over the years," he says. "Don't get me wrong. But most now are waiting for me to go under. So they can rent my land."

He pulls up to a field in Horse Head. His 27-year-old son, P.J., hops down from a tractor. He looks like his father -- the hazel eyes, the chestnut-brown skin, the thick build. Father and son engage in some shoptalk: A part is needed for a tractor; a check has to be deposited in the bank. A bug lands on the father's earlobe, and the son picks it off with the tenderest of motions.

When Ricky and Judith Haynie divorced, P.J. chose to live with his father. In grade school, P.J. would sit by the window and identify for classmates all the tractors that rolled by. It got so disruptive that the teacher had to move him away from the window.

"My wife," recalls Daniel, the extension agent, "would always be worried about little P.J. driving the tractor. He was 9, 10 years old!"

P.J. studied agricultural economics at Virginia Tech. Before graduating, he had an internship at a commodities firm in Nebraska. One day, when P.J. was talking to his father on the phone, Ricky made a comment about his farming woes, how it all seemed so uphill. Next morning, when Haynie walked out into the fields, there was P.J. He had driven all night from Nebraska, shucked his suit and put on his farm clothes.

"I was an assistant commodities trader," P.J. recalls now. "That little internship, in the end, didn't mean pipsqueak. We had so many folks with hopes riding on the farm. I knew if the farm didn't stay afloat, a lot of people would be affected. Not just me, but my siblings, too." He talks with the same focused intensity as his father. "I had to leave an air-conditioned building and come out here in the heat and work 90 hours a week in the field. But I had to do it."

It was P.J. Haynie who successfully challenged the USDA. "I found discrimination in his case," says Gray, who investigated P.J.'s complaint and recommended a settlement. "He had been denied loans, and he was farming and eligible. The agents alleged he was fronting for his father, but he met all the requirements for the loans." She says the agents had a simple way of dismissing P.J.: "They would just tell him there was no loan money."

The Haynies' strangest encounter with the USDA occurred in 1998, when father and son paid a visit to an agent in the district office. The conversation seemed to be going along fine until the agent opened a drawer and calmly pulled out a gun. He looked at the elder Haynie, Ricky recalls. "Now, Mr. Haynie, you got any more questions?" he asked.

After Haynie complained, the USDA suspended the agent for three days. "The guy admitted he had the gun," says Lloyd Wright, the former USDA civil rights official who investigated the incident. The agent insisted he hadn't pulled out the gun to intimidate Ricky Haynie. "He said he was showing the gun to Haynie after their conversation was over." Wright says. "They were miles from being friends, so why would he be showing Ricky Haynie a gun?"

Ricky and P.J. haven't allowed their battles with the USDA to beat them down. Come midnight, father and son will be on the road together, hauling materials to New Jersey. There's large stenciled lettering on the back of their truck: "By God's Grace & Mercy."

AT 22, JENNIFER HAYNIE HAS JUST GRADUATED FROM HAMPTON UNIVERSITY with a degree in molecular biology. She seems mature beyond her years. She was 3 when the U-Haul pulled up to the house, and her parents separated. Of the Haynie children, she voices the deepest regrets about her father's farming life.

"Our father was always working," she says, sitting on a park bench, peeling chilled shrimp, looking out over an inlet of water.

When the Haynies divorced, Judith and the children moved to Portsmouth for a while. Jennifer hated it. "It was horrible. We were from 'the country.' All the kids were city kids." She and her siblings missed Reedville, the open land. They eventually returned and moved back into the farmhouse; Ricky moved into another house in Heathsville. "The farm is the only home I had ever known."

There were times, growing up, when she wondered if her father's dream was really worth it. "I feel cheated, kind of. He puts more into the farm than he gets out of it."

When her father went to Washington to protest the plight of black farmers, she went along. She was in junior high school. "I was, like, I don't want to go and hold no stupid sign. Then, after I got there and saw all the other farmers, I felt anger at the USDA."

Early in the legal proceedings, the government liquidated some of the Haynie family assets, including her college savings account. She made up some of that lost money by joining ROTC. Now she's afraid she might have to go to Iraq.

Even so, when Jennifer graduated in May, her father was in the audience, beaming. "At my graduation, the president [of Hampton University] said, 'I want all of y'all to buy land,' "Jennifer says. "My father kept saying: 'You see what he said? See how important land is!' "

RICKY HAYNIE WAITS IN FRONT OF THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE IN LAWRENCEVILLE -- 163 miles southeast of Reedville -- alongside Linwood Brown, a black farmer and longtime friend. It's a lovely red brick courthouse, with white pillars rising in front of it. There is a notice pinned behind a glass window announcing the auction of 20 acres that Brown owns in Brunswick County.

Brown, 63, was among those who sued the Agriculture Department for discrimination. He'd been, at one time, a large landowner and won a $400,000 settlement in 1999. Afterward, Brown felt flush. He embarked on some ill-advised spending sprees and stock market investments. He went broke, then borrowed some money from another farmer and couldn't pay it back. The farmer's only recourse was to seek Brown's last bit of land as payment.

By 10 a.m., a crowd of a dozen men -- all white -- have formed a half-circle, facing the auctioneer, Rawleigh Clary. He has white hair, a sonorous voice and a piece of flimsy paper in his hands -- the trustee's sale notice for Brown's land. And here he goes:

"Who will give me an opening bid of $20,000. $20,000? Will you go to $22,000. Will you go to $27,000? . . . I got $27,000. Then will you go to $28,000? I got $28,000. Who'll go to $32,000? I got $32,000. $34,000? Who'll go to $34,000? $33,000 then. Who'll go to $33,000? Yes, here. $33,000. $33,000 going once, $33,000 going twice. Sold! Right here. $33,000."

Ricky Haynie has just bought the land on behalf of P.J., who told his father to bid if it looked wise to do so. Like father -- figuring, calculating, dreaming -- like son. The fact that the land has gone to a Haynie somehow seems to have lightened Brown's despairing mood.

Afterwards, Brown and Haynie eat lunch at Mortay's Restaurant, two blocks from the courthouse. Cabbage, fried chicken, iced tea, sweet potato pie. The bottom half of Brown's mouth has begun to tremble. Maybe from everything that has just unfolded. A farming life come to an end.

They finish lunch and wave goodbye, Haynie folding the paperwork of the land sale into his back hip pocket. A little more than two hours later, he arrives back home and drives straight to some fields he works in Burgess to check on their progress. He wades out into the rows of wheat. "Don't know how much damage these insects might be doing," he says, squinting and studying the edges of plants.

Next Haynie swings by an auto parts place to pick up something for his truck. Then he sweeps back into Reedville to check on his cornfields. He stands at the edge of one of those fields, musing, a blade of grass between his teeth. "I love to get in the field and smell the earth," Haynie says. "I love watching stuff grow. You go out and spray a field. Then you lay back and just look at it. It's like looking at a fine piece of art."

He climbs back into his truck and heads home for dinner as darkness finds him and his fields. "I can still see my granddaddy in the fields," he says, "in the heat of the day." A small smile creases his face.

The lights are glowing from the windows of Haynie's house. He walks inside, where Gail and his three youngest daughters are waiting. Dinner is on the table. Haynie washes his hands, sits down and leads the family in prayer. "Amen," the farmer says, raising his head at the end of the blessing, with dark against the windows and light in his eyes.

Wil Haygood is a staff writer for The Post's Style section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.