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Published April 05, 2010, 09:56 AM

Native American farmers want answers

WASHINGTON — Black farmers signaled April 1 that they will be patient while Congress and the Obama administration try to find $1.15 billion to settle USDA discrimination cases, but the administration is now under pressure to settle a similar suit brought by Native American farmers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Jerry Hagstrom

WASHINGTON — Black farmers signaled April 1 that they will be patient while Congress and the Obama administration try to find $1.15 billion to settle USDA discrimination cases, but the administration is now under pressure to settle a similar suit brought by Native American farmers.

Black, Native American, Hispanic and women farmers have all said USDA has not given them equal treatment with white farmers and did not provide them farm and housing loans in the same manner they provided them to whites.

Under an agreement reached between the Obama administration and the black farmers on Feb. 19, the plaintiffs in the case known as Pigford II had the right to walk away from the deal if Congress did not appropriate $1.15 billion to settle the claims by March 31.

The 2008 farm bill, which authorized USDA and the Justice Department to settle the suit, provided only $100 million and said Congress would have to appropriate any additional funds. Congress did not appropriate the funds by March 31, and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., has blamed the Obama administration for not putting forward a request for the funds on an emergency basis, which would start the process of appropriating the money without offsets.

Not walking away

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr. said he and his lawyers have decided not to exercise their right to walk away from the deal immediately. He said that the appropriation should be a high priority for Congress and the administration when Congress returns on April 12, and if there is not a settlement soon, they either will go back to the negotiating table or go back to court.

According the Feb. 19 agreement, the plaintiffs and the class have the right to void the agreement within 60 days of March 31 because Congress did not appropriate the money by that date, but they must notify Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of their intent during that 60-day period.

The administration announced the deal “like it was over and done with,” Boyd said, adding that black farmers are “very confused” and are calling his office to ask about planting loans. Boyd said he has heard nothing from the White House about his request for a meeting with Obama to discuss the matter.

“People are forgetting USDA did discriminate against the black farmers,” Boyd said. “I would like to know why I can’t visit with the president for a group of farmers that supported the president hand over fist. We campaigned very vigorously for the president. I would like to see what his ideas are for a next step.”

Vilsack has said the settlement remains a high priority for the administration, but Boyd said Vilsack’s statement is not strong enough because it does not detail whether the administration will ask for the emergency request or identify offsets to be used to pay for the appropriation.

A USDA spokesman said April 1, “Secretary Vilsack understands Mr. Boyd’s frustration, and that’s why he continues to have daily conversations with congressional and administration leaders to identify offsets and resolve this issue.”

Still seeking settlement

Meanwhile, the administration has been in negotiations with the Native American plaintiffs and the lawyers since December, but the court stay to permit the settlement discussions expires April 21. Joe Sellers, an attorney for the Native American plaintiffs, said April 1 that the two sides have exchanged offers for a closed-end fund similar to the one in Pigford II under which the plaintiffs would agree to a total amount of money to be split among all plaintiffs.

Sellers said the money would come from the Justice Department’s judgment fund and that no appropriation would be required. No estimate of the settlement amount has been released. Sellers said it is difficult to estimate the number of Native American farmers who will come forward because USDA kept such poor records in past years.

Reps. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., who co-chair the Congressional Native American Caucus, wrote Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder March 26 urging them to settle the Native American ranchers and farmers’ credit discrimination case known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack. Kildee and Cole said the Native American farmers and ranchers should have their claims settled because they were victims of the same discrimination by the same agency as the black farmers and also suffered financial losses.

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