A dozen farmers are gathered in the capacious machine shed on the farm that Houston Tyler and his two sons operate, and the talk is much the same that's heard everywhere -- low prices, big debt, dead end.
But there is a difference.
These are black farmers, members of a vanishing breed whose days may be numbered. If the lurching farm economy does not finish them, the weight of history possibly will, for the black farmer is fast becoming a statistical nonentity in America.
A 1982 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found the rate of decline of black-operated farms 2 1/2 times greater than that of white-run farms, predicted that there would be fewer than 10,000 black farmers by the end of this century unless the trend changed.
"The urgency of this situation is accentuated by the virtual irreversibility of black land loss," the commission said. "Today, only those who inherit land or who have other nonfarm sources of income can afford to purchase and operate farms . . . . The need for federal intervention is immediate."
Four years after the commission issued its report, there is no sign that the trend has changed. And few of the Agriculture Department and Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) policy changes urged by the commission to keep blacks on the land have been carried out.
"The current decline in the farm economy is having the most dramatic effect on black land ownership," said Calvin H. King, director of the Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corp., a rural self-help organization that counsels blacks on ways to retain their land.
The story is much the same across the South, where the majority of black farms are located. There is disagreement over the statistics, but census takers who reported there were 57,000 black-owned farms in 1978 identified only 33,000 among the nation's 2.4 million farms in 1982. In contrast, there were 926,000 black-operated farms in 1920.
The new economic pressures on farmers are just the latest in a long string of events that have pushed blacks off the land. Restrictive property tax and inheritance laws, the migration of rural blacks to the North, schemes of local governments and rival landowners that cheated owners and heirs, the unavailability of credit, mechanization and new technology that encouraged debt and expansion, along with traditionally smaller and economically less secure farms -- all have contributed to the demise of the black farmer.
As dire as the statistics appear, the decline in black agricultural land ownership actually may have been slowed by the work of such groups as King's and the privately financed Emergency Land Fund (ELF) in Atlanta, which began to focus on black ownership issues in the early 1970s.
The ELF organized affiliates in more than 100 counties in eight southern states, lobbied for less restrictive property laws, arranged for private funding to keep land in black hands and provided legal aid for black owners facing property loss. Financial problems last year forced the ELF to merge with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
"We can't provide money, but we can provide technical assistance and legal guidance -- and we have had an impact," said Ephron Lewis Sr., a black farmer from Earle, Ark., who is president of the land and farm corporation. "We have been able to save quite a bit of land for black families in this area. There have been some changes in the law in Arkansas that help, but they don't go far enough."
Joseph F. Brooks, who headed the ELF until last year, said, "The difference between now and when we started is that it seems as if the environment for concern and action is better now. At first we were trial and error -- didn't know what the problem was. It was a political as well as an economic problem and when the current farm crisis came into public awareness, it seemed likely the black problem would get more attention as a coattail effect."
Despite changes in property tax laws and growing awareness of the land-loss problem in Arkansas, the decline continues apace. In 1930, there were about 80,000 black farmers; by 1978 the figure had dropped to about 2,000. Today, it is estimated at 1,300. In 1910, about 30 percent of the state's farmers were black; today, about 2 percent are black.
The plight of Raymond Williams, 60, is typical. He's a short, chunky man who wears Washington Dee Cee bib overalls and a cap that says Federal Land Bank Association, although he borrows his yearly operating money from the federal FmHA.
Williams inherited 40 acres from his father, also a farmer, and now he grows rice, cotton, milo and soybeans on 500 acres -- 180 owned, 320 rented -- with the help of a son, Marvin. But the debts are mounting and Williams fears the chain of family ownership will be broken.
"I've harvested 38 crops, we bought our land and we've done pretty good in farming. But the money is what has got us now. Last time I paid all my debts was in 1979. We spend more than we make," Williams said. "My son would like to farm; he's ready to keep going if he can pay the debts."
Marvin Williams' reaction was spare. "I'd like to keep on, but it doesn't look good." The Barbed Wire of the Law
Cotton Plant is a forlorn little place, its main drag speckled with derelict buildings and boarded-up stores. But 30 or so years ago it was a center of commerce for hundreds of black farmers and their families who lived in surrounding Woodruff County. Cotton Plant remains about two-thirds black, but the area's black farmer population is drifting away.
The town, twice its present size, had a cinema, three cotton gins, all manner of stores, churches, a veneer plant. Cotton, the money crop, sustained the people. But markets dwindled, federal irrigation subsidies spurred more production in the West and farm mechanization overwhelmed the small black farmer's ability to compete.
"In our heyday, when 'progress' started, we had more than 2,000 people," said Mayor Emmitt Conley. "Then in came the two-row planter, the four-row planter, the eight-row planter and there was no work for the farm people to do . . . . Small farmers made a decent living around here, but their kids left for St. Louis or wherever, the parents died and the kids were careless -- let the land get away from them. There's no way to get it back."
Old folks who stayed behind and then died often left "heir property," land conveyed without a will to children and others in the extended families. Here in Arkansas, as in most of the rest of the South, the legal entanglements of heir property are a major contributor to black land loss.
An ELF study found that more than a fourth of all black-owned parcels in the Southeast were heir properties, each owned jointly by an average of eight people, of whom five lived outside the region. Another nugget: more Mississippi land is owned by blacks in Chicago than by blacks in Mississippi.
Alabama and Georgia recently have changed laws to require that family members be given first option to buy any jointly owned property in which a partner seeks a partitioning -- that is, to sell his or her share. But in the rest of the region, including Arkansas, these disparately owned and managed lands are subject to laws that make them prey to the partition sales or disposal for nonpayment of taxes.
"We haven't been able to do what Alabama has done. We haven't been able to deal with the partition laws," said Henry Wilkins III of Pine Bluff, Ark., a black college professor and state representative. "The partition thing is the most important item on the agenda to me. Partition sales have been notorious in eastern Arkansas, where the bulk of our blacks live.
"We have a lot of lawyers and landowners in the legislature from eastern Arkansas . . . . where the bulk of our blacks live, and they resist changes. There is no compassion," Wilkins said.
Arkansas, however, enacted legislation in 1983 aimed at ending scandal and abuse that arose from the sale of property for nonpayment of real estate taxes. Tens of thousands of poor blacks and whites are believed to have lost their land through ignorance of the old law that allowed counties to auction off tax-delinquent land.
Under the old law, speculators or neighbors could pay delinquent taxes on any property -- often unbeknownst to the owner -- and receive a deed to the land after two years. In other cases, counties auctioned off delinquent properties at midnight sales or through a system that gave political favorites first chance at the best land.
"These abuses happened predominantly to blacks. In my four years as state land commissioner, all the contact I ever had about problems came from blacks," said W.J. (Bill) McCune, now secretary of state in Little Rock. "We even had some county officials who would rake off the best land for themselves."
In fact, after he became land commissioner, McCune discovered that his predecessor had surreptitiously set up a corporation -- with a telephone in his state office -- to acquire and resell properties that came up on the delinquent list.
The new law puts the state, rather than the counties, in charge of the collection of delinquent taxes and it requires more diligent efforts to locate and notify absentee owners of tax debt and a minimum five-year waiting period before the state can sell the property.
Charlie Daniels, McCune's successor, said that the first sale of delinquent tax property is scheduled for 1987. But, he said, the state's early experience in trying to identify and notify absentee owners has been discouraging. Almost half of the certified notification letters sent by Daniels on 15,000 parcels have been returned for lack of proper address. Federal Response Is Slow
In February 1982, the Commission on Civil Rights sent its report on the black farmer and recommendations for action to Agriculture Secretary John R. Block. Block did not respond. The highly critical report apparently was put on a shelf to gather dust.
The report said that racial discrimination was endemic in the FmHA, that USDA's civil rights office was in shambles (it has had six directors since 1981); that FmHA did not emphasize help for small and minority farmers; that blacks were not adequately represented on county-level farmer committees that decide who gets loans; that loan programs designed for low-income minority farmers were helping white farmers in disproportionate numbers.
In brief: USDA policies were preventing black farmers from getting the credit they needed either to obtain new land or to hold onto their land and continue farming.
After commission chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. warned in March 1983 that black land loss had worsened, Block acted.
He appointed a task force, dominated by officials of agencies criticized by the commission, to review the report. In October 1983, Block wrote back to Pendleton with the panel's response. It acknowledged a duty to help all farmers, but made only vague recommendations for addressing the commission's concerns.
Block ordered USDA agencies to respond with action plans and he named Samuel J. Cornelius to oversee progress. Last December, the agencies were asked to report on their work. In a recent interview, Cornelius agreed that the agencies' latest responses were vague and that little had been done to meet Civil Rights Commission concerns.
"The report will go to the secretary Richard E. Lyng, Block's successor and we will see if the recommendations are being met . . . . We are at a point now where we need a clear line of responsibility for this issue," Cornelius said.
Cornelius, a black, said, "If we proceed the way we have been going, it is reasonable to assume there will be no black farmers in the future . . . . Our No. 1 problem is a need to make certain that the people who have USDA responsibility understand what the thrust is going to be, that all farmers must be treated fairly and equitably. The policy direction must come from the top. There is no other way . . . . This report is a recognition of a problem they didn't know existed before. It is a start. The issue is whether we want any black farmers left in the U.S.A."
Pendleton said he had not seen the new USDA report, but added, "We would be disappointed if not much has been done. Without having seen the report -- and this has nothing to do with my Reaganism -- people have to be treated without discriminatory intent . . . . Our concern in 1982 was that farmers are farmers and that all be treated alike."
Pendleton, however, said the commission in 1982 was "more of a socially oriented commission" and that, if it were reporting on the demise of the black farmer today, it might not make the same strong recommendations for using USDA policy tools to encourage black land retention.
"I don't think enough blacks in America understand the value of land in commerce, period. If one gives away the land, he controls nothing," Pendleton said.
Ephron Lewis Sr., the farmer from Earle, agreed, but only to a point. "It is important," he said. "When you own something, you have a feeling of control. But the only way a black can buy land now, at least from white landowners, is to pay double the cost because of discriminatory attitudes . The black farmer is a dying breed."