The conference included reports on the production and marketing of peanuts, muscadine grapes, goats, cotton, and vegetables. Panel discussions were held on the crisis facing farmers and on the 2002 federal farm bill. There were also speeches by politicians and representatives of government agencies.
Randi Roth, the independent monitor in Pigford v. Glickman, the class-action lawsuit by Black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for long-standing systematic discriminatory practices, reported on the latest developments in the implementation of the consent decree that settled the suit.
Roth said a court order issued February 7 addressed two issues of concern to farmers. One was on the 400 to 500 "noncredit" claims concerning discrimination in government assistance, such as disaster relief. For these outstanding claims, the ruling mandated a flat $3,000 cash payment be made to farmers, he said. The court also specified that debt forgiveness for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans will be limited to date of the discriminatory act up to 1996.
Farmers had until last September to file late claims relating to the settlement. Since then the focus has been on Roth's office, which is responsible for reviewing appeals by farmers whose claims of discrimination were denied by the government. The monitor cannot overturn a denial, but can only recommend to government officials that the claim be reconsidered. Kenneth Saffold, a Minneapolis attorney working for the independent monitor's office, reported there are some 8,000 appeals to process which will take some months, he said.
Sylvester Harris III, a hog and tobacco farmer from Soperton, Georgia, is one of the farmers whose claim was denied. The government adjudicator said he had defaulted on loans prior to 1981 and on a loan in 1989. Harris has documentation, however, of a letter signed by the county supervisor showing he did not start farming until 1981 and that the 1989 loan was canceled. Unlike many farmers, Harris was able to find a similarly situated white farmer, a requirement for making a claim. The adjudicator said that it took Harris only five days more than it took the white farmer to obtain a FSA loan, but Harris has proof that it took the white farmer 50 days to get a loan and it took him 180 days.
Harris appealed his claim in May 2000 and is still waiting for a response. "One of the biggest lessons I learned as a result of this fight is never to trust the U.S. government," he said.
Charles Dennard, a farmer from Pineview, Georgia, explained his experience with the settlement. Dennard received $50,000 on his claim last August, two weeks after his farm had been sold on the courthouse steps. "Had I received the money in time, I wouldn't have lost the farm. I have seen some hard times," he said. To add insult to injury, most of the $50,000 was taken by the bank, Dennard said.
A panel of Georgia farmers spoke at the conference on "The 2001 Farm Year--Problems and Pitfalls." Larry O'Neal, a farmer in Thomas County, said, "The problem is commodity prices are so low, and the things we buy are so high." He pointed out that peanut prices had declined from $700 a ton a few years ago to $613 a ton last year, while nitrogen went from $90 a ton last year to $175 a ton this year.
Willie Adams, a poultry farmer from Greensboro, Georgia, explained the price squeeze he is experiencing. He said that a cold spell in December and January, coupled with a sharp increase in the price of gas for farm use, resulted in his expenses for fuel rising from $800 last year to $4,000 this year.
The bleak forecast for working farmers was alluded to in a talk by Nathan Smith, assistant professor of agriculture at the University of Georgia. Consecutive years of high production for southern staple crops --corn, cotton, and peanuts --coupled with little change in marketing opportunities, has resulted in low prices, Smith said. According to a 2001 University of Georgia report, "Low commodity prices and higher costs resulting from rising fuel prices resulted in a drop in net farm income in 2000 to $40.4 billion...with USDA projections at $34.4 billion for 2001."
Karl Butts is a farmer from Plant City, Florida. Arlene Rubinstein, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers in Atlanta, contributed to this article.
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