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Black farmers encouraged by funding provision in House version of Farm Billcomment (0)

August 30, 2007

By Manda Gibson

Alphonso Hooks and his one full-time employee grow leafy vegetables, watermelon, cantaloupe and corn in rural Macon County. They cut hay and raise around 40 heads of cattle, along with some goats and chickens.
Hooks, who’s 59 years old, has been farming virtually all of his life and says he regularly has faced discrimination as a black farmer.

He was denied an FHA loan to build a house on his farm in 1974 because his home’s design was modern, not the traditional four-corner house. At the same time, white farmers were having no trouble getting loans for their own modern homes.

And repeatedly, when Hooks and other black farmers applied for farming loans, they were denied or given less than what they requested.

Don Williams, director of racial/ethnic church relations for Bread for the World, said the Farm Bill has the potential to significantly improve the lives of black farmers in the United States, including black farmers in Alabama.

“That’s important, especially for those of us who are Christians, to be able to influence the government in a way that will be more just to all the people,” he said.

The Farm Bill — a law that is renewed every five years by Congress — provides programs and funding surrounding agricultural issues. The 2007 Farm Bill has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting debate in the Senate.

The House version of the Farm Bill contains two components of special interest to black farmers. One focuses on the Pigford v. Johanns (also called Pigford v. Glickman) class action lawsuit that was settled in 1999. This component exists because of the efforts of Alabama Congressman Artur Davis. The other involves commodity payments to farmers.

Pigford v. Johanns claimed that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had discriminated against black farmers. The USDA settled the lawsuit, but many black farmers missed the 1999 deadline to file a claim, often because they didn’t hear about the suit in time. Others met the deadline, but believe their claims were unjustly rejected.

The Farm Bill that passed the House will allow many black farmers another opportunity to file a Pigford claim.
Hooks is one of those farmers who plans to file. Though he also filed a Pigford claim before the 1999 deadline, it was denied on what he believes were unjust grounds.

Hooks originally planned to apply for $50,000 — the cap for most claims filed in the Pigford lawsuit. Now he likely will ask for more to help make up for all the years that he didn’t have that money to invest in his farm.
“My desire, if I get the money, is to put this farm back where it should have been 25, 30 years ago — where it’s totally self-sufficient; where it will operate in a manner where it will take care of me and my family and I won’t have to seek outside help to keep going,” he said.

Hooks also is watching the Farm Bill closely to see what will happen with commodity payments, payments the government offers farmers to grow certain crops.

For example, the government might pay a large-scale farmer a certain amount to grow soybeans, explained Williams. What happens, though, is that the farmer — strengthened by government funds — produces a large soybean crop. Then the abundance of soybeans causes soybean prices to fall, affecting other farmers, especially small-scale farmers who don’t receive such large government payments.

According to the Environmental Working Group, the gap between what the average black farmer receives in commodity payments and what farmers of other races receive widened from $2,225 in 1995 to nearly $10,000 in 2005. With such a wide gap, many black farmers just aren’t able to compete, said John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association.

A Christian ‘responsibility’
The House version of the Farm Bill has done nothing to narrow that gap, Hooks said. He’s hoping that the Senate version will allot more funds for commodity payments to smaller farmers.

If Hooks were to receive larger commodity payments, he would use them to help improve irrigation at his farm — something that has been especially critical during the last couple years of drought.

Boyd said Americans have a responsibility to support farmers, and particularly black farmers. “Black farmers [are] a group of people that helped build American agriculture as slaves and share croppers and are certainly being overlooked today in American agriculture,” he said.

Williams said Christians have a particular responsibility to get involved in doing the right thing for black farmers.
“You can’t legislate love, but you can legislate how people can be treated fairly around a particular issue,” he said.
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