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Mr. Farmer goes to Washington: Black farmers march to rally support for restitution

February 8, 2010 |  3:54 pm

Farm What does it take for a farmer to get the federal government to make good on a promise – particularly if it’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture and it involves restitution for years of racial discrimination in rural America?

Patience. A lot of patience. And when that runs out, rallying for some help from Congress and the White House.

The current brouhaha dates to 1999, when the USDA reached a settlement with black farmers in a discrimination case that alleged that the agency had denied federal loans, disaster assistance and other aid to certain farmers because of the color of their skin. (The agency is still fighting similar class-action suits filed by Latino and Native American farmers.)

The USDA approved about 15,000 claims and paid out about $1 billion, but has refused more than 70,000 claims that were filed after the October 1999 deadline. Farmers said they were given no notice of the deadline.

The two sides have been fighting ever since. And despite a fairly scathing slap by the Government Accountability Office a few years ago, and President Obama more recently pledging to add an additional $1 billion-plus to the settlement fund as part of other Congressional bills, the cash still isn’t getting out to these farmers.

So the farmers are shutting off their tractors and taking their frustrations to the streets. This week, the National Black Farmers Assn. has been staging rallies across the South, trying to bolster support. It might be a tough sell, given the current state of the economy. They’re planning to wrap up their campaign with a national rally on Feb. 15 in front of USDA's main offices in Washington.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A farmer walks past an old plow. Credit: Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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