by Rosemary Eng
The NorthStar News & Analysis
After a $1.2 billion settlement with the National Black Farmers Association for decades of discriminatory loan practices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to get news out that those days and those old practices are mostly in the past, although some of the same people who practiced discrimination are still with the department.
“This is a brand new day,” said Latrice Hill, director of outreach for USDA’s Farm Service Agency. ”This is not your fathers’ or your grandfathers’ USDA. This administration does not tolerate discrimination.”
USDA initiated a wide array of programs to help “persistent poverty communities,” starting in 2010 with the southern states of Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas.
The targeted program, called Strike Force, has since been expanded to Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.
The government agency works with small-scale or start-up farmers who need help with a variety of tasks, including how to fill out loan applications. They also offer technical assistance, such as ways to meet safety and sanitation standards before foods go to market.
The loan process has been made easier with the establishment of a micro-loan program for $35,000 and less for new and/or struggling small-scale farmers who need equipment or want to develop new crops, or need help with other farming-related expenses. The USDA says small, family-scale operations would otherwise have to resort to personal credit cards or high-interest personal loans. The interest on micro-loans is about 1.25 per cent. The USDA defines small farms as businesses reporting annual sales of less than $100,000.
Hill, who until three years ago worked in various positions with USDA in her home state of Mississippi, says she realizes the government agency suffers from a scarred reputation after denying loans in the past to black and other minority applicants.
She has first-hand experience with loans, having been a loan officer with the farm loan division of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Jones County, Mississippi, where she was responsible for assessing financial situations and risks, approving and servicing borrower farm loan accounts for six counties.
Hill is part of the USDA’s new broom. As Clifton Peters, USDA liaison for Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., said, “when you create an image, it takes a while to lose the mind that individuals were mistreated. Hearing stories about your grandfathers’ experiences with the USDA can turn young people away from the agency.”
“You have to show you have new people, new policies,” said Peters, who travels to schools, community colleges, community organizations, faith- based organizations, any group willing to receive him, about career opportunities in farming.
Peters graduated from Alcorn which has been an institution primarily attended by African Americans since 1871. He comes from a sharecropper family, which paid rent for farmland by giving part of their cotton and corn harvests to the landlord.
Partnering with institutions that people in local communities know and trust, like Alcorn, helps USDA to overcome its past reputation, said Ms. Hill.
For example, six young people ages 10 to 20, are now working with a mentor to learn calf care — what kind of feed to buy, how to de-worm the animals, said Anthony Reed, interim assistant extension administrator in Alcorn’s school of agriculture. That is being done with help from a USDA grant.
The Winston County Self Help Cooperative, “saving rural America” in Jackson, Miss., is in USDA’s Strike Force region. The community suffered after local garment and clock factories closed, leaving them to rely for their economic survival on timber harvest and farming.
President Frank Taylor says the coop has benefited from USDA expertise on conservation practices, particularly with timber.
He praised the USDA’s micro-loan program, describing how one family used the money to build a hoop house, a simple, temporary, covered structure with which they were able to start tomato plants in February. They were able to get crops to market much earlier than with field crops planted in late April, extending their growing season.
Eddie Carthan of Tchula, Miss., is a farmer who went under after failing to get loans from the USDA after he took over his late father’s farm in the early ‘80s. His father farmed cotton, soybeans and wheat.
Farmers need loans at specific times of the year, like January and February, to buy seed, fertilizer, and equipment to get crops started. Sometimes USDA loans would not come through until May, June, July, when it was too late, he said.
After “three years of struggles,” following loan refusals, he wasn’t able to keep the family farm in the fertile Mississippi Delta. He wasn’t the only one. When his father farmed, there were about 200 black family farmers with farms large and small. Today there are only ten commercial black farmers. “The rest lost their land and were pushed out,” he said.
Cathran, who is president of the Mississippi Family Farmers Association, eventually received a settlement for loan discrimination.
Change at the USDA has come very, very slowly, he said.
“Loans are still hard to get all over the South,” said Carthan. “The same people who discriminated before are still in office and still discriminate. Some of them have been promoted.”
Despite “the old still sticking around, things will get better. Most of the (older staff) should be at the retirement stage.” Then “younger people with new ideas” will come in and change things eventually, said Carthan.
For more information about USDA’s Farm Service Agency go to www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/.