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Fast Losing Lands : Blacks Hit Hardest by Farm Crisis

Times Staff Writer

The cows were all milked, and Willie Adams, the last black farmer in Greene County, had just finished spreading fresh wood chips in three chicken houses to ready them for the next shipment of 50,000 baby chicks.

“All I want is to pay my bills and make my farm successful,” Adams said with a honeyed Georgia drawl. “I can see where I can be profitable. I need two more brooder houses and I want to improve my (dairy) herd, get good producing cows.”

Adams, 35, who farms 340 acres of cleared land in the piney woods 80 miles east of Atlanta, talked hopefully about his plans. Although he is frugal and hard working, he needs more capital. But these are hard times for farmers, black or white, and credit is hard to come by.

Farm Operates in Red

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“After the whole year’s over, I am in the red. There’s nothing left-- zero,” explained Adams, who is married and has two young children and debts totaling just over $130,000.

If he were not black, this husky young man’s story would be no different from that of thousands of other American farmers. But black farmers, already hard pressed by social and economic conditions that whites seldom face, are losing their land at a rate 2 1/2 times faster than their white neighbors.

Statistics tell the story: In 1920, one of every seven farmers was black; today that ratio is one in 67. Nearly a million black farmers once owned lands totaling 15 million acres. Census figures now show there are 33,000 blacks left farming 3.1 million acres, mostly in the Deep South. (Only 388 of California’s 81,700 farmers are black.)

Decline Cited in Report

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Until 1982, when the U. S. Civil Rights Commission released its benchmark report, “The Decline of Black Farming in America,” blacks’ loss of lands had gone virtually unnoticed. The commission predicted that fewer than 10,000 black farmers would survive the next decade.

According to the report, blacks’ land loss is “rooted in our nation’s racial history” and exacerbated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s failure to treat blacks as equals. The Civil Rights Commission’s sharply worded report castigated the government for doing so little to help black farmers break free of a “history and environment of racism.”

After waiting months for the agriculture department to respond to the report, commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. took then Agriculture Secretary John R. Block to task. Pendleton pointed out in a letter to Block that “black farmers received only a small fraction of (agriculture department) loans . . . despite their disproportionate need.”

But black farmers and activists from organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives say that little, if anything, has been done since Pendleton wrote Block in 1983, despite two congressional hearings on the issue and the creation of an Agriculture Department task force to study the problem.

“The commission’s intentions were good, but that report is just a footnote. Nobody’s done anything about it,” said George Ammons, 37, who tills 125 acres in North Carolina’s Duplin County. He argues that blacks are hit harder by the current farm crisis than their white neighbors. “When you’ve got both discrimination and the economy to fight, you got a pretty tough situation to deal with,” Ammons said.

Johnny Jones, 55, a black growing truck crops south of Fresno, chuckles when white farmers complain that the Reagan Administration is not doing enough to help the beleaguered farm family. “This is the way it’s always been for black farmers,” he said.

“California agriculture has always been closed to blacks,” said Horace Hampton, 75, who farmed for 20 years. Now a wealthy Fresno businessman, he is one of only two black graduates of the University of California’s School of Agriculture at Davis.

FHA Loan Bias Charged

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In California and the South, black farmers blame much of their predicament on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Administration, created by Congress 50 years ago to finance Depression-era farmers who could get credit nowhere else. The agency offers financially strapped farmers a wide range of loans, some at reduced interest rates. It now holds $28 billion in outstanding loans--14% of the national farm debt.

Top Farmers Home officials acknowledge that few blacks work for the agency in management positions, but they deny that there is discrimination in either employment or lending practices.

“We didn’t hear any racial complaints,” said Farmers Home Administrator Vance L. Clark after a recent trip through the South. Clark, who took over the agency last fall, said he had not read the Civil Rights Commission’s report, but he made it clear that he “wouldn’t tolerate” racial discrimination of any kind.

His assistant, Jenny Phillips, added: “There have been isolated problems, but they don’t make the pattern.”

‘Doing a Good Job’

Clark nodded in agreement: “We are doing a good job (remedying civil rights problems and helping blacks stay on the land) but we’ve done a lousy job of public relations. . . . We just haven’t tooted our own horn.”

Phillips, giving her view of why black farm ownership is rapidly dwindling, said, “Farming is not a profession that appeals to blacks, historically.”

Black farmers such as Robert Mays, 65, disagree. They say that the Agriculture Department makes the problem worse because it does not treat blacks and whites equally. Mays farms land not far from Plains, Ga., that his family has held since Reconstruction. He owes Farmers Home $190,000 and was meeting his payments, he said. When he was unable to get commercial credit in 1985, Mays applied to the federal agency for another loan.

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His application was rejected because he had outside income that provided “an adequate standard of living without farming.” Those were the words typed in the blank space on a form letter. (Mays’ wife earns $25,000 a year teaching, and he gets a small civil service pension.) Mays protested that whites in similar circumstances had been granted loans.

In Atlanta, Farmers Home programs chief Raymond Bryant said that while the Mays’ loan denial had been affirmed by the agency’s review boards, that decision had been made months ago. Since then, the policy on “outside income” has been reversed, and “we’d be glad to take another application (from Mays), . . . but we haven’t heard from him,” Bryant said.

Loan Agency Criticized

Two former Agriculture Department officials also disagreed with the upbeat assessments made by Clark and Phillips.

“Blacks do not have equal access to Farmers Home Administration loans,” said Richard Douglas, a black Republican agricultural economist who served under Block as assistant deputy secretary of agriculture in 1981-82. “Farmers Home has failed to live up to its mandate . . . to help all small farmers,” he said.

Lowell Pannell, a Democrat who climbed the Farmers Home civil service career ladder, was appointed state head of the agency’s California operations in 1977. He was the first black ever to hold a state directorship.

“There was racism in Farmers Home when I graduated (from college) and started to work for the agency (in 1955). There was racism when I was state director, and there is racism in Farmers Home now,” he declared.

And it is the resulting lack of access to credit that stands out as the single most debilitating factor in the minds of most black farmers.

“Banks wouldn’t lend a black man a dime,” said Jefferson Pierro, 73, who worked and saved 14 years to buy a 60-acre farm in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley in 1953. “I wanted to level my land, drill a well, but when I asked Farmers Home for a loan they told me, ‘no, no, no,’ every year for 12 years. . . . It was frustrating because white farmers were getting loans and farming profitably.”

Helped by White Friend

Finally, a white Quaker community worker helped the discouraged Pierro to apply one more time, and he got a $9,700 loan. “They did it because I had a white man backing me up,” Pierro said, his gravelly voice edged with bitterness. His son, a college graduate, has taken over the farm west of Delano.

“If you don’t know what programs to ask for, (Farmers Home will) tell you they’ve got nothing for you, they don’t help you at all,” said one Georgia farmer who feared retaliation if his name was used. Another black said: “They (loan supervisors) don’t like you to sit up straight, or talk up. . . . You got to say ‘yassir’ and ‘nossir’ and not look them in the eye.”

One California farmer complained: “When you go in for a loan, they drop the desk on you.” He said that Farmers Home supervisors made him submit endless paper work, only to reject his application because he’d made a mistake. He was told to apply all over again. When he finally got the loan, he said, it was “supervised” so closely he had to stop and get a Farmers Home countersignature on every check.

“Sometimes I’d have to go back two or three times because they’d be out for lunch, or something,” he added.

Complaint Are Common

Such complaints are so common throughout the South that John W. Helmuth, a white agricultural economist on the staff of the House Small Business Committee, sampled Farmers Home operations in three states--Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi. He selected a single county office in each state and reviewed the operating loans they made in 1985.

Two of the samplings turned up no discrimination, but in Holmes County, Miss., Helmuth discovered that the processing of blacks’ loan applications takes a full month longer than whites’ applications; black farmers are twice as likely to be rejected, and half of the approved black loans are closely supervised. Only a third of the loans to whites are supervised, he reported.

The study had an another--unintended--result. Helmuth said it revealed how differently each of the Farmers Home offices operates, even though the federal loan programs are governed by the Department of Agriculture’s policies and regulations.

Structurally, Farmers Home operates under a highly decentralized patronage system dominated by 46 state directors who are appointed by the secretary of agriculture, usually at the request of a ranking U.S. senator or representative. State directors select county supervisors from the civil service ranks to run each of the 1,900 field offices.

County Panels Appointed

Each county has a three-member “loan committee” that is appointed to review all loan applications for the county supervisor. Theoretically, these unpaid committee members represent the farmers. In fact, they have been a part of the white patronage system, according to both black and white critics who complained to Rep. Ed Jones, (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House agriculture credit subcommittee, which oversees Farmers Home Administration operations and budget.

Thirteen farmers, most of them from Robeson County, N.C., wrote Jones that the system was so corrupted by politics and racism that it threatened their livelihoods.

Jones held hearings in Robeson County, 90 miles south of Raleigh, in March. One black farmer, Tim Pigford, testified that Farmers Home loan statistics showed that the Reagan Administration was providing “unequal distribution of agricultural credit.”

Blacks were getting only 1% of the real estate dollar volume in 1982, down from 3% when Reagan took office. The number of blacks qualifying for low-interest loans had declined by 68%, he said.

One of the blacks before the Jones committee had already lost his farm. Another, Wilson Gerald, 70, may also lose his land. Gerald says that just asking for a loan in Robeson County can turn into a nightmare if you are black.

Gerald has reared 12 children on his 50 acres just off of Hog Swamp, at the end of Wire Grass Road in Smyrna Township, and considers himself a progressive farmer. He said in an interview that he first borrowed money from Farmers Home nearly 40 years ago to buy a truck and tractor--"proving that even a little nigger farmer could get what he needed from Farmers Home.”

The short, stocky farmer traces his land titles back to “slave days,” when his grandmother was a house maid and “concubine” to the white plantation owner who fathered her six children and, after the Civil War, gave them an undivided interest in 29 acres. After Gerald’s mother died in 1964, he bought out the other heirs, using a federal loan. He borrowed again from Farmers Home to build his house.

Barred by Red Tape

His current problems began in 1982, when the Reagan Administration tightened up on Farmers Home loan policies. When Gerald came in for his annual crop production loan he was told he had to fill out a new, 22-page Coordinated Financial Statement that was then being tested as a loan-processing document. Gerald tried but failed to complete the complex form and asked for the old, more familiar four-page application.

Randy E. Simmons, the Farmers Home county supervisor, rejected the request. He wrote Gerald that the new form was “in 100% use by anyone obtaining financing.” This was contrary to the national policy guidelines sent out by Charles Schuman, then head of the Farmers Home Administration, when he authorized the testing of the new form in North Carolina.

Use of the new booklet form, which Congress later ordered withdrawn because it was too complex, was never mandatory, according to a top Farmers Home spokesman in Washington. Only 10% of the farmers in any county office were supposed to be asked to fill it out, and then only with the assistance of agency experts.

Gerald said no help was offered him and, after he tried three times and could not complete the form, he gave up. In urgent need of money to get his spring planting started, Gerald went to the United Carolina Bank for an operating loan. The bank approved a $13,000 loan, on condition that he borrow another $29,000--at 14% interest--to pay off his farm and home mortgages, which were carried by Farmers Home at 5% interest.

Bank Cut Off Credit

In the worsening farm economy, Gerald could not meet the high interest rates and fell behind in his payments. The bank then cut off his credit and demanded repayment, threatening him with legal action. Desperate, Gerald turned again to Farmers Home in September, and was again told that he must fill out the experimental CFS form if he was to get a loan. He tried and failed.

Farmers Home officials deny that their actions forced Wilson Gerald to take out the high-interest bank loans in 1982. “Mr. Gerald had resources to get credit elsewhere; he left of his own accord,” said state director Larry Godwin, who denied that all farmers were required to use the new booklet. Godwin also contended that Gerald had not reapplied for credit this fall or winter.

A white farmer, Charles Freeman, said in an interview, however: “I was in the Farmers Home office when (Gerald) tried to apply. They told him he had to fill out that new form. He tried, and when he couldn’t, he left.” The white farmer said that he was allowed to fill out the old forms.

Based on the testimony of both black and white farmers from Robeson County, Rep. Jones ordered the Agriculture Department to find out if politics and racism were influencing Farmers Home loans in the area. Jones also pushed through an amendment to the recently passed farm bill to require that two of the three loan committeemen in each county be elected, effective immediately.

On Jan. 24, Farmers Home Adminstrator Clark wrote Samuel J. Cornelius, head of the department’s civil rights watchdog Office of Advocacy and Enterprise, to inform him that while the investigation of Robeson County had not substantiated any allegations of discrimination, there were “perceptions” of “inequitable treatment.”

Remedial Steps Cited

Cornelius, a black who oversees all civil rights issues in the Agriculture Department, said that Farmers Home is now setting up programs to help black farmers stay on the land, as recommended by the departmental task force studying the Civil Rights Commission report. He said that the agency has budgeted $1 million for educational projects at three black land-grant colleges.

Separate “black” and “white” land-grant colleges were set up in the last century by Congress. Although they no longer are segregated officially, black land-grant colleges have very few white students. The U.S. Department of Agriculture budgets $22 million in research grants for the 17 black colleges (an average of $1.29 million each). It makes $200 million available to the 54 white schools (a $3.7 million average), a department record keeper said.

Meanwhile, down in Georgia’s piney woods, Willie Adams struggles to improve his farm, keenly aware that he is Greene County’s last black farmer.

“When I was growing up, there were a dozen black families farming around here, but they’re all gone now, all but me. And if I was in it just for the money, I wouldn’t be here . . . ‘cause its a real tough struggle.”


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