USDA-Black Farmers Civil Rights Settlement fails
Nine in 10 black farmers shut out of landmark settlement


Rejected twice by USDA, McCray nearly gave up on farming altogether

Leroy McCray applied to the Farm Services Agency (FSA) around 1990, requesting $5 million in working capital and equipment loans to set up a chicken farm in Sumter County, SC. The local USDA FSA official met with McCray, telling him that no money was available. "They told me to go look for a private loan," he recalls. This story was not what his white neighbors were told, "I knew there were 7-8 white farmers in my area with chicken farms who were getting the money, the same type of loan that I wanted. And they only had high school education and limited or no farming experience when they got their loans. I was a college graduate with lots of experience with different farm animals and operations, and I was getting denied. It didn't make any sense."

Settlement presented difficult compromise

McCray learned of the civil rights settlement with USDA, and chose to pursue relief, though he felt that it would not make him whole. "It wasn't an easy decision, I didn't want to just take the $50,000. I wanted to go for the $5 million they had denied me, but it seemed like it would never be resolved if I did that." McCray is one of the few farmers who received relief under the settlement. Despite his success, McCray does not expect USDA's treatment of African American farmers to change. "It's not any better, it's still the same as it was. It's the same plot."

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 20, 2004: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) withheld nearly three out of every four dollars in a $2.3 billion landmark civil rights settlement with black farmers, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Black Farmers Association.

The historic agreement was intended to quickly pay back black farmers for decades of unequal treatment when they applied for USDA crop loan programs. Instead, the investigation found, USDA treated farmers as legal adversaries by contracting with US Department of Justice lawyers, who spent at least 56,000 staff hours and $12 million contesting individual farmer claims.

As a result, the vast majority of African American farmers have been denied the "automatic" compensation that the settlement promised. For the 81,000 farmers denied compensation, there is no future opportunity to obtain relief. Without intervention by the United States Congress, these farmers will never receive the compensation they deserve.

The USDA hid information it had already compiled on loan program treatment differences between white and black applicants. African American farmers were forced to try to reconstruct, on their own, information that was readily available at USDA.

"The numbers in this investigation show this program is a complete failure in addressing and ending decades of discrimination against African American farmers," said Arianne Callender, EWG general counsel. "Instead of processing claims as promised, USDA used the full weight of the federal government against African American farmers it had already discriminated against."

"Thousands of us are losing our land because USDA has shut out African American farmers from crop loan programs for decades," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "This settlement was supposed to pay us back for unfairly denying us the same opportunities as everyone else. Instead, they have thrown up roadblock after roadblock."

The investigation found that, nearly nine out of ten denied restitution. USDA denied payment to 86 percent, or 81,000 out of 94,000, of African American farmers who came forward seeking restitution.

The full investigation is available on EWG's website:


USDA refused to even provide Mr. King with an application

Calvin King visited USDA's local Lunenburg County Farm Services Agency (FSA) office in Kenbridge, VA in January 1981 to apply for a loan to purchase 27 acres of timber land adjacent to the farm where his parents had been sharecroppers since the early 1900s. The FSA official refused to even provide King with an application, telling him that no funds were available for his loan. "It was common knowledge that certain white farmers got better treatment. Everyone knew that the white farmers were getting loans while [black farmers] weren't. They were not far from us, just down the road, and it was just generally known that they were getting money from [USDA] but we weren't," says King.

King joins the Civil Rights Settlement and is denied the "automatic" payment, appeal still pending more than five years later

After learning of the Pigford v. Veneman class action settlement, King sought restitution by joining the settlement in June 1999. He was assigned to Track A, the "automatic" $50,000 track, but his claim was ultimately denied. USDA's refusal to provide King with an application became a major obstacle in his case. He was left with no record that he applied for a loan, "If they'd offered an application, at least they'd have something on file. When you buy a car or go for a job at least they give you an application to fill out."

USDA's practice of withholding information on similarly situated white farmers who received loans also became an insurmountable hurdle for King. USDA refused to provide any information to King, despite having the data within its own files. King attempted to navigate the maze of public documents to prove his case, but failed. King named two similarly situated white farmers in his claim, one of whom he was certain was receiving loans, and another whom he was reasonably sure received loans and owned a large farm several miles from his parents' farm. He later learned that one of the farmers was actually leasing the farm to a white neighbor who operated the next farm over and several other farms in the area, "Had I listed [the other farmer] I would've been ok, but since I named [the land owner], I got denied. That was a mistake I made with the name, and that resulted in the denial. It seemed logical at the time that I assumed [the landowner] was receiving the [USDA] loans. But it's hard to tell in this area where one farm begins and another ends or who is farming what or who owns what. There are no clear boundaries like in the suburbs."

Calvin went back to the Kenbridge, VA FSA office in May 2000 attempting to define the boundaries between the farms, and met with further obstruction. "I wanted to demonstrate to them that the two farm operations were connected just to show how I had gotten the name confused. In the process, the FSA office denied me some basic information that should've been released, such as whether or not the farms were connected, and how. And who was the farmer that farmed the land that year," says King. He explains, "It seems to me that they withheld information that they should not have withheld from me ... but I was not given anything." Ironically, says King, "the FSA office in Fredericksburg, VA ... provid[ed] me with information ... about two black farmers ... if the black farmers' information was released to me, the white farmers' information should have also been released."

In November 2000, King challenged the denial of his claim. Although his settlement claim was filed over five years ago, no decision has been made on his appeal, and Calvin's case remains unresolved today.

King files new complaint for retaliation by USDA for his participation in the settlement

King faced retaliation due to his participation in the Pigford civil rights settlement, and filed a subsequent discrimination complaint with USDA. King explains, "I filed an additional complaint against USDA because of ongoing discrimination I experienced after the Pigford suit, and probably because of my involvement in the Pigford suit. After Pigford, I was continually discriminated against." King's experience is that "USDA is not applying the same standard to black farmers that it is applying to white farmers, and that constitutes an act of discrimination against me and all black farmers. USDA law is the same all over the country. The law is the law, and it should be applied equally throughout the land."

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