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A dream denied

For years, Shade Johnson and his family have been fighting to own and hold on to their farmland--and the government has been their biggest problem

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Make no mistake about it, 53-year-old Shade "Ben" Johnson is of the land. Born into the thriving African-American farm community of 1950s Tillery, N.C., Johnson grew up in the fields of a 44-acre plot, harvesting peanuts and corn alongside his mother, uncle and brothers.

Upon his mother's death in 1974, he and his brother, Milton, went to work for their older brother, Leon, who had purchased an adjacent 74 acres of land, while renting another 1,200 acres. At the time, this total acreage represented one of the largest black-owned and managed farms in Halifax County. Unlike Leon, Shade Johnson never owned any farmland. Evidence suggests the government never wanted him to.

In 1979, while helping his brothers grow corn, soybeans, peanuts, tobacco, cotton and wheat, Johnson heard about a 90-plus-acre farm on the same road for sale. Hoping to buy it, he went to the Halifax County office of the Farmers Home Administration--now the Farm Service Agency (FSA)--the local arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that extends loans and credit.

His brothers had encouraged him to apply, Johnson recalls. This was not surprising, since they had received operating loans from the FSA the year before. "They thought I may be able to get the money to buy the land," he says.

FSA loans to farmers include operating loans and ownership loans for buying farmland. Johnson found out that the latter were much harder to apply for.

When he went to the FSA office and asked for a loan application, the staff did not give him one. Leon, who had accompanied his brother to the FSA office, asked them why and "pitched a fit," Johnson says. "They told him no funds available, just like that." After they left the office, Johnson found out through his family's contacts with other farmers in the community that local white farmers were not having any trouble getting loans and buying land.

The decision on whether a farmer gets a loan is typically made at the local level, says Ron Pearson, the FSA farm loan chief for North Carolina. Pearson says a farmer usually gets a loan application form when he asks for one. When told about Johnson's experience at the Halifax County office, Pearson declined to discuss that particular case, labeling it "privileged information."

Pearson will discuss the typical loan-application process. After the farmer submits an application and supporting materials, he says, the FSA evaluates the request based on two criteria. The first is eligibility--that is, the money must be borrowed for an eligible purpose, such as buying a tractor. The second is feasibility. For instance, the FSA evaluates whether the farmer can afford to pay for the tractor.

According to discrimination lawsuits filed against the government and available statistics, there was nothing feasible about black farmers applying for FSA loans in Halifax County. The scenario described by Johnson is far from uncommon.

In 1982, a government report shows the FSA office in Halifax County returned 57 percent of its allocated land and "Limited Resource Loan" money to the federal government, even though farmers in the region were hard-hit by a multi-year drought.

Complaints about the FSA were widespread--and not just in Halifax County. In 1996, black farmers based in North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. The suit, Pigford vs. Glickman, alleged racial discrimination in the agency's credit and benefit programs. On April 14, 1999, the government settled, offering two tracks for compensation. Track A provides $50,000 and some debt relief for claimants. Track B has a higher burden of proof and if met, higher payments.

The lawsuit includes all African-American farmers who, according to the USDA, "farmed or attempted to farm between Jan. 1, 1981 and Dec. 31, 1996" who believed they were discimrinated against on the basis of race.

Johnson's case ultimately represents those African Americans denied the chance to own land in the first place. Though he did receive small equipment and supply loans from financial institutions, Johnson lacked the income and collateral for more substantial farm ownership loans. His brothers could only help so much, since their resources weren't much greater.

Like other farmers throughout the South in the 1970s, the Johnson brothers were hit hard by decades of drought and low crop yields. In 1980, Milton and Leon were able to borrow money from the FSA for disaster assistance. They also received equipment loans in 1978 and 1979.

They'd live to regret it.

Their loans were supervised from the outset. They had to go to the local office of the FSA to pick up their checks and get permission from the agency on how to spend them--namely, to pay off creditors first.

"You would have to go to the dealer [farm supplier] and have them write out a bill," says Milton. "Then you would have to go to them [the FSA] to sign a check for it." He says restrictions and costly delays--black farmers commonly lost entire days of farming running between the FSA and suppliers--did not apply to most area white farmers who, via the FSA, could get supplies on credit.

For the Johnson brothers, things worsened as bad weather continued. In August 1981, the FSA foreclosed on Milton's property after turning down requests to restructure his loan payments. He and his family were forced out of their home, which was sold, along with their farm equipment.

In 1984, the government convicted Leon on a charge of selling mortgaged crops. The government said proceeds had to go directly to the FSA and other creditors. Leon spent four months at a federal jail in Kentucky. During that time, the FSA sold off his equipment and two years later, sold his land, too.

Then, in the mid-1980s, the FSA charged Shade Johnson with selling his brothers' mortgaged crops. Johnson said he did not sell the crops--his brothers did. All he had done was donate his labor and a tractor to help his brothers out. In 1984, Johnson was twice called before a grand jury in New Bern for selling mortgaged crops. Twice, he was found free of blame.

Seeking to address what they viewed as unfair treatment, the three brothers joined the Pigford vs. Glickman class action lawsuit against the USDA. Shade and Leon Johnson filed under Track A. Milton filed under Track B, asking for $695,000--a figure he and a lawyer thought covered his liquidated property.

In July 2001, Milton received a check for $140,000, the full amount of his settled case but far less than he'd originally hoped for. To add insult to injury, the FSA informed him that he and his ex-wife still owed them money.

To this day, their earnings are reduced by $150 per month by the agency. Milton says that the Department of Justice still sends him letters on behalf of the FSA saying he owes money. "They sold my house, they sold my equipment and everything, and they say I still owe them a balance of $162,000," he says. "They're ain't no way in the world that can be right." The situation has led him to consider filing for bankruptcy.

Leon died in February 2002, his FSA case unresolved. His health began to decline after the FSA put him out of business and forced him and his family to move. "It was like they were out gunning for us, and they said, 'We're going to get rid of these black farmers,'" Shade Johnson says.

He now works a part-time job while growing vegetables to sell on a small scale--about $25 to $40 worth a week. It's a far cry from what he would have earned from the farm he hoped to buy. Johnson calls the FSA claims facilitator on the first of every month, hoping for relief. The agency tells him his claim is still being reviewed.

Johnson feels he got no support in his efforts to own land. "I thought that's what they were there for--to help the farmers," he says, adding that he believed the USDA was there to help "the poor people, especially."

Johnson wants people to know about the plight of black farmers. "Some people don't know that things like this happened," he says. "After all, it's their government." EndBlock

Rachel Hardy is a Durham-based writer and editor who specializes in medical issues.

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