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.”

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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.

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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.

Of this new settlement, which is expected to start making payouts in 2011, Hooks has one question: “What do I have to do to reopen my claim?”

Patience Is Part of Farming

There was a lot of jubilation at the settlement’s announcement. Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, is hoping that all the celebrating doesn’t turn out to be premature. “President Obama has put the settlement into the budget, but it is up to Congress to pass it,” Grant says. “Then we’ll see if the USDA and the U.S. Department of Justice create as many roadblocks as they did with Pigford I. There are farmers from that one still waiting for their $50,000.”

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.

Until the Check Clears

Samuel D.B. Jackson, 44, whose 200-acre wheat and soybean farm is in Wallace, S.C., about 90 minutes northwest of Myrtle Beach, is a skeptic. Which may be a way of saying a realistic son of the soil. He is nearly 20 years younger than the average black farmer, but faces the same issues: How do you secure elusive capital at non-onerous interest rates, deal with fluctuating demand, work with fickle weather—and pay for costly energy, supplies and equipment?

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About 10 years ago, the USDA found that Jackson had been discriminated against. But he is still waiting for the case to be settled. Thus, in earthier tones, he buttresses the farm organizer Grant’s comments about anticipating the recent $1.25 billion settlement.

“The crop ain’t in until it comes across the scales. You can have a full cotton field and a cotton picker waiting, and a storm can wipe you out before the harvest. That’s why they call it farming. The [settlement] deal has been struck, but how long can you wait for the money? It isn’t real, until the check clears,” Jackson says.

Frank McCoy, a regular contributor to The Root, covers business and technology.

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