On a recent Sunday in rural Macon, N.C., John W. Boyd Jr., the president of the National Black Farmers Association, went to his fourth funeral in a week.
Mr. Boyd has been burying his group’s members with bitter frequency, attending two or three funerals most weeks. Each death makes him feel as if he is running out of time.
Wrangling over the federal budget in Washington has delayed payouts from a $1.25 billion settlement that Mr. Boyd and several others helped negotiate with the federal government to compensate black farmers who claimed that the Agriculture Department had discriminated against them in making loans.
“I thought that the elderly farmers would get their money and get to live a few happy days of their lives,” Mr. Boyd, a Virginia farmer who is not a plaintiff in the settlement, said in an interview. “They deserve the money before they leave God’s earth.”
A lawyer at one of the firms handling the farmers’ claims said last week that a majority of eligible farmers were over 65 and most were in poor health. Younger relatives, she said, often filed claims for farmers who are ill or dead. The lawyer, who asked that her name and that of her firm be withheld because she was not authorized to speak on the matter, added, “We have a lot of death certificates.”
Their cases are an outgrowth of Pigford v. Glickman, a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by Timothy Pigford and about 400 other black farmers.
They alleged that from 1981 through mid-1997, Agriculture Department officials ignored complaints that they were denied aid comparable to what white farmers received because they were black.
In 1999, the government agreed to settle the suit and has paid just over $1 billion for nearly 16,000 claims while denying another 7,000.
An estimated 80,000 farmers were shut out of the case on the grounds that their claims were filed too late. In 2002, the judge presiding over Pigford decided not to admit their claims, which the farmers said resulted from insufficient notice by the government and clumsy work by their lawyers. But the judge warned the lawyers that their work was “bordering on legal malpractice.”
In 2008, Congress set aside $100 million to address late claims.
Then in February, the farmers and the Obama administration reached a settlement to pay out an additional $1.15 billion, and President Obama, who co-sponsored the 2008 measure as a senator, included the money in his proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year.
The amount each farmer will receive will not be determined until all the claims have been vetted, said Andrew Marks, a lawyer with Crowell & Moring in Washington, one of the firms representing the farmers. Some 30,000 claims have been filed, he said, and lawyers expect a “significant” number of additional claims.
In the 1999 settlement, successful plaintiffs filing basic claims received $50,000 tax free. The money is half what the farmers sought, but the administration’s promise of a quick resolution prompted them to accept the deal, Mr. Boyd said.
Congress missed a March 31 deadline set by the administration to provide financing, which would have allowed payments to start by the summer of 2011.
The farmers agreed to give the government an extension through May 31. The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill that includes the settlement.
The settlement has strong support across party lines, but some lawmakers are worried that the bill’s costs have not been offset by corresponding cuts in spending.
If Congress misses another deadline, the farmers can withdraw from the settlement, which most are reluctant to do.
Mr. Boyd suggested that Mr. Obama circumvent Congress and pay farmers out of the same special Treasury Department fund used to pay Pigford claims.
So far, Mr. Obama has deferred to Congress. Some farmers have speculated that the president is shying away from the issue because it involves race. The White House said that was untrue.
“The president’s approach to this is not based on the color of skin but because of what is right,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.
One of the farmers who had filed a claim was Addie Haynes, who inherited an 18-acre tobacco and corn farm in Whiteville, N.C., when her husband died in 1958. She and their five children worked for years to pay off $56,000 in debt on the farm. The Agriculture Department turned down her 1983 request for a loan to help buy seed and equipment.
“That’s when the trouble really began,” said her oldest daughter, Pauline Haynes-George. “All along my dad could do the farming and pay on his bill. But by my mother being a little black lady and a widow, it was just getting to be hard for her.”
Eventually, the Hayneses surrendered equipment and 14 acres to pay off the debt, which had grown to more than $80,000. Mrs. Haynes died in 2004.
“It would relieve her heart to know that her children could get a rebate from the hardship that she went though,” Mrs. Haynes-George, 69, said.
At 78, Harvey White wonders what might happen to his 200-acre soybean and cotton farm in Prentiss, Miss.
He said Agriculture Department officials told him every year from 1967 to 1986 that they could not lend him money for equipment, seed and fertilizer.
The settlement would help him to repay the loans he used to sustain the farm, build a home and put five children through college. Mr. White, who still farms, said he would also buy a car with air-conditioning to take his 76-year-old wife, Mary, to her thrice-weekly dialysis appointments.
“I just want to make a living off my farm,” he said.