Black farmers meet this weekend in Columbia

rburris@thestate.comNovember 7, 2013 

— Hundreds of black farmers are expected to come to Columbia this weekend for the National Black Farmers Association two-day annual conference.

Up to 300 of the 47,000 or so African-Americans nationally who continue to make a living growing food, grain and cattle will attend the conference, organizers said, They will network and learn more about new techniques to gain financial backing to keep alive their centuries-old tradition.

“South Carolina has been a pretty good state for us as far as (farmer) participation is concerned,” said John Wesley Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer and National Black Farmers Association founder. “Most of these guys (in South Carolina) are raising grains and wheat, and some beef cattle – many of them have part-time jobs on the side, but some of the farmers are out there full time, doing the grain-thing.”

One in seven farmers was black in America in 1920. By 1982, only one in every 67 was black, statistics show.

While black farmers owned 15 million acres of farmland in 1910, according to statistics, they only owned 3.1 million acres of farmland by 1982.

There are 1,200 black farmers in South Carolina on the association’s member list, Boyd said.

Among the issues that will be discussed at this weekend’s conference are participation in U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, rural development and changes in the pending U.S. farm bill, which is languishing in Congress.

Black farmers are hoping to get congressional conference committee members to move the Federal Crop Insurance Program premium payments from the start of the planting season – when farmers also have to purchase seed, fertilizers, fuel and other necessities – to the end of the year when they have sold crops, Boyd said.

On Saturday, the conference will have breakout sessions on financial settlements from the decades-long, $1.25 billion discrimination suit and settlement forged by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Checks from the settlement have gone out beginning in recent weeks, Boyd said.

In 2010, 18,000 black farmers each won a $50,000 settlement and a $12,500 tax payment on their behalf to the Internal Revenue Service for years of racial discrimination against black farmers in loan practices.

The government paid a $3.4 billion discrimination claim against Native Americans --- and both signed by President Barack Obama, who supported the lawsuit when he was a freshman senator from Illinois.

But many black farmers got none of the settlement funds, Boyd said, and that will be discussed.

On Friday night, some of the key players in resolving the settlement, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, whom Boyd said was instrumental in getting members of Congress on board the deal, Joe Leonard, an assistant secretary in USDA’s civil rights division, and Alex Pires, one of only two attorneys the black farmers could find who agreed to take the discrimination case, which ended as one of the largest civil rights cases in U.S. history, Boyd said.

“We also need to get the word out that the settlement is closed,” Boyd said. “There shouldn’t be anybody soliciting any kind of funds from elderly landowners and elderly black farmers. That time has passed.”

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