In August members of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) parked a tractor in front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) building and, with a mule in tow, demonstrated along the sidewalk. More than three years ago, the farmers consolidated their claims of racial discrimination in farm lending into a class-action suit under which eligible plaintiffs would receive a $50,000 settlement. (In a separate arrangement, those demonstrating extreme wrongdoing could seek larger damages). Thus far, $629 million has been paid to 12,597 claimants, and 421 loans totaling $17.3 million have been forgiven, according to the USDA. The 100 or so farmers parading at USDA were protesting delayed payments. They were in Washington for the annual NBFA convention held in nearby Crystal City, Va., where NBFA Founder and President John W Boyd Jr. says they discussed crop diversification, forming their own credit union and the lawsuit. Boyd is a fourth-generation farmer. His family owns 210 acres in Baskerville, Va., where they have cows, raise chickens and grow tobacco, wheat and corn.
What prompted you to found the National Black Farmers Association in 1995?
I founded it because I was an African American farmer out here struggling. Rural issues just don't get the attention that urban issues do. I was faced with foreclosure, and I said "If I don't do something, I am going to become one of these statistics you keep reading about." There were quite a few farmers in my community during the same time period that the government was pushing on foreclosing. That's how we began to organize.
What has happened since you won your class-action suit in 1999? It ended up being more than 80,000 people petitioning to be a part of the class. I don't think anybody thought there would be 80,000 people looking for relief. [The class went back to 1981 through 1997]. But the numbers don't surprise me if you look at how many Black farmers there used to be [approximately 900,000 in 1940 compared with only 18,000 in 2000]. But only 12,000 people got checks. And since the Bush administration has taken office, they've put a halt on payments. You might have a letter that says you're eligible for $50,000 and will receive your check within 30 to 60 days, and that's been a year ago.
What has been the reasoning for holding up the payments? They want to review all of the decisions. The judge is giving them the opportunity to do so. But if I am a Black farmer looking at this letter, and I went to school up to the seventh grade, I am saying "Where is my check?" What was supposed to be a good thing [the settlement] has turned out to be a bad thing, because we have some 60,000 people they haven't looked at yet. How have White farmers reacted to Black farmers' actions?
I have interaction with White farmers all the time, and they say it is good how we have been able to organize people and work on the government. The problem is small White farmers support you, but not publicly. They actually benefited more than the Black farmer did when [in 1997 President] Clinton stopped farm foreclosures for two years. It was stopped for White farmers, too. They benefited a lot more because they had a whole lot more debt and they were able to get themselves together [during that time period] and regroup. The issues facing Black farmers have really resonated in the short period your group has been in existence
Nobody wanted me to use the name Black farmers- On Capitol Hill, they said, "Can't you change your name to say something like 'Minorities in Agriculture?"' I said No, because even when they investigated my [USDA] county supervisor, he made 147 loans and only two to Black farmers. When they asked my county supervisor did he have a problem making Black farm loans, he said, "Yeah, .cause they're lazy." [The investigator] said, "You are on tape. You sure you want to say this?" He said, "Yeah, it's how I really feel." They say it and don't even know that they are discriminating.