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.

National Black Farmers Association protest, 2002 (Getty Images)
National Black Farmers Association protest, 2002 (Getty Images)

Alphonso Hooks, a fourth-generation farmer in Shorter, Alab., was ambivalent about recent news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a $1.25 billion discrimination settlement with thousands of black farmers. The agreement, called Pigford II, was the second redressing of past USDA racial discrimination cases. Hooks says he got nothing in an earlier settlement. “I was one of the first to file and one of the first to be denied,” he says.

“You don’t go into farming for the money,” says Hooks, who operates Al Hooks Produce, a 202-acre vegetable and cattle spread, with his 35-year-old son. “You must have something in your heart and keep at it. You have to love the land.”

Every farmer needs cash, however. In 1997, Pigford I, the first USDA settlement, provided 13,000 farmers with $50,000 each in tax-free cash; it also provided them with debt relief. The settlement was named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who, along with 400 other African-American farmers, filed a class action suit against the USDA in 1997, charging the agency with racial discrimination in its allocation of farm loans and assistance. For decades, federal assistance to African-American farmers was blocked by seemingly racist USDA agents, and black farmers’ bias complaints were ignored, or received glacial responses.

The current settlement is spurred by that of 1997. The USDA admitted that thousands of other black farmers’ claims from the 1990s went uninvestigated because they had not been received by the USDA’s filing deadline.

Racial discrimination, apparently, had a statute of limitations. To which USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said, in a statement about the recent settlement, “The agreement reached today is an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good.”

A Snapshot of a Black Farmer

In 1910, blacks owned more than 15 million acres of mostly Southern land. A century later, the 2005 U.S. Agricultural Census reports that of the nation’s 1 billion arable acres, only about 1 million acres are black-owned.

Al Hooks is almost the model, average black farmer, as per the Department of Agriculture 2007 census data. Hooks is 61, owns about 200 acres—or roughly twice the average black spread—and made about $21,000 last year. By contrast, the average white farmer is 57, owns 418 acres and boasts sales of about $135,000.