In mid-February, a $1.25 billion settlement was announced between the USDA and a class of black farmers.
The settlement would provide payments for black farmers who claim widespread, long-term, discriminatory loan-lending practices by USDA.
At the time of the agreement, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) said, “Today’s announcement moves us an important step closer to a just resolution of the black farmers’ cases. President Obama, (USDA) Secretary Vilsack and the administration have shown leadership in getting us to this moment. Next week, another black farmer will lose his farm. Others are at risk of not living to see justice. These farmers have waited for years, and simply cannot wait any longer for final resolution.”
That was then. Skip ahead to a March 26 press conference and Boyd’s attitude had shifted from hope to exasperation and disappointment.
The reason? The February settlement stipulated that Congress had to act on the $1.25 billion in funding by March 31. Without that, plaintiffs can vacate the agreement. Now, with Congress heading home for Easter break, the deadline won’t be met and Boyd is enthusiastically pointing at those to blame.
“The (Obama) administration announced this as if it was over with back in February. But we don’t have the money.
“Basically, we’ve been in Washington pushing members of Congress since we entered into the agreement. … The deadline has creeped up on us and nothing has passed in either the House or the Senate…
“I’m reminding everyone that the president made a strong commitment to show leadership to get this done. We haven’t seen him show that leadership over the last couple of weeks. We haven’t heard him voice his opinion on this issue. The president failed to step up and make the final step to get this done for our nation’s black farmers.
“The president (hasn’t) helped us finish the job. What happened here? I’ve asked (that of) … leaders in the White House and it has fallen on deaf ears.”
Boyd said when black farmers miss a deadline, “we lose our farms and lose the ability to take part in federal programs. We even miss the opportunity to take part in the original (Pigford v. Glickman) settlement. What happens when Congress, the president and the secretary of agriculture misses a deadline? Who oversees that?”
Congress may get a large dose of blame for the missed funding date, but Boyd places even more blame on the Obama administration.
“When they sent over the emergency package that had FEMA/Katrina, the black farmers and the Indian case, they failed to mark it as an ‘emergency.’ I know for a fact leaders in Congress asked the White House for an emergency designation. They failed to respond.
“I’ve reached out to the White House to urge them to mark this as an emergency. It could have moved through the Senate two or three weeks ago (when) there was an opportunity. It wasn’t marked as an emergency by the administration and they failed to provide offsets — where the money would come from if we have to go pay-go.”
Black farmers have “been caught between the White House and Congress. That’s been our problem for a very long time.”
President Obama, Boyd reminded, “made a statement during one of his speeches. He said the buck stops with him. I’m saying if the buck stops with him then step out and help the black farmers finish the job by asking Congress to appropriate this money.”
Black farmers are “very disappointed the leadership didn’t work together better. I don’t want to take away from the efforts (of Michigan Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) in late March — he’s certainly leaned on Secretary Vilsack and others in Congress to get something moving. And I think there’s a little movement in the House, I don’t want to (downgrade) that, at all.”
However, while members of Congress are home on recess “our nation’s black farmers are dying, are losing their farms, and will miss another opportunity to plant their crops and harvest on time.”
When Conyers met with Vilsack in late March to discuss the settlement funding, Vilsack “said he was working on it and that his staff had reached out to Conyers,” reported Boyd. “Conyers quickly said that (Vilsack’s) staff had not reached out.
“That was the whole bait-and-chase game for weeks on the Hill when I was attending meetings. One would say, ‘Hey, we haven’t heard from the administration. We need more guidance from the administration.’”
Boyd was asked if the deal will fall apart.
“I don’t know. But I’m holding people accountable because when we entered into this agreement, the (Obama) administration agreed to put it on fast-track. That’s one of our reasons for taking the deal.
“We were looking for $2.5 billion” before settling for “about half” that amount. Boyd and others “urged our legal team to take the deal because the farmers are older and the administration — including Secretary (Vilsack) — said they’d go to the Hill and push to get this done by March 31. … (Vilsack) said, in a very candid meeting, that he was doing that.”
At this point, allowing the government to “say ‘oh, we have plenty of time to do this’ would be letting them off very lightly. They agreed to do this and agreed to put this on the fast track.”
The NBFA has hired “a phone bank and other things to take an abundance of calls. Black farmers think the money is in place, we’ve settled and this is a done deal. But it’s not — Congress hasn’t acted and the administration has failed to show the leadership to close the deal.”
Boyd wants to meet with the president face-to-face. “I want to hear from the president why this can’t be marked as an emergency. This is an emergency: thousands of people have lost their lives and livelihoods waiting for justice. I call that an emergency. I don’t know what everyone else calls it.”
This is “more of the same” for black farmers, said Boyd. “We’re told, ‘It’s okay to continue to wait. You guys just wait and do nothing while members of Congress go home on vacation.’”
Considering the years of legal wrangling with USDA, will black farmers say “enough is enough?”
“That’s what I’m saying today,” answered Boyd. “That’s exactly what I’m saying: ‘enough is enough.’ I’m putting the accountability where the president said it should be — the buck stops with him.”