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The USDA and The Value of Black Land

Yes, the USDA just signed a $1.25 billion discrimination settlement with thousands of black farmers. But those farmers won’t be holding their breath while they wait for the check to clear.

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This is something that Ben F. Burkett, 58, understands all too well. A farmer from Petal, Miss., he’s also a rural activist and a longtime leader in the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which is part of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

In 1889, Burkett’s great-grandfather secured his land. Today, Burkett’s 30-year-old daughter and 18-year-old nephew work on the 275-acre B & B Farm. Their spread grew by subtraction: Burkett gained 40 acres when his uncle’s children left the land. “Most black farmers in the area lost their land, sold it, moved north or just walked off,” Burkett says.

B & B has 150 acres of vegetables, 100 acres of valuable old-growth pine; it also plants soybeans. Twenty other relatives work on the farm. In a “normal” year with all acreage used, Burkett could gross up to $100,000 and net up to $60,000. “But there is no such thing as a normal year,” he says.

Proving Discrimination

For farmers like Burkett and Hooks, establishing racial bias is an arduous process. Black farmers had to show that a white farmer in the same situation had received USDA assistance when it was denied to the blacks. Most black litigants didn’t have the time, money or means to do such research. They also had to avoid lawyers, who’d agree to take the case—along with 30 percent of the settlement. Burkett got his Pigford I money after a struggle. “It took eight years to get the $50,000 after being denied a first and a second time, and I won on the third appeal,” he says.