Hispanic Farmers Fight to Reclaim Heritage

Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman, June 6, 2010

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“I want to make it the way it was before I die,” said Modesta Rodriguez Salazar, 66, who now cares for what is left of her family’s heritage.

She said the farm’s downfall was due to the denial of several loans in the 1980s by local U.S. Department of Agriculture agents, which prevented the family from planting. One by one, her siblings–she was one of 13–left the farm their father bought in 1952 after realizing they couldn’t make a living from it.

The farm is one of more than 700 nationwide–and 143 in Texas–at the heart of a decade-long legal battle that a generation of Hispanic farmers has been waging against the Agriculture Department. The farmers sued the government in 2000, claiming widespread and institutionalized discrimination at the hands of government agents, who they say denied or delayed crucial farm loans, resulting in the ruin and loss of many family farms.

{snip} Last month, the U.S. government made a $1.33 billion offer to settle the case. And though the farmers and their attorney call the offer grossly inadequate, it signals the possible resolution of what some U.S. officials call a dark chapter in American farming history.

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African American farmers received a $1 billion settlement in 1999, and in February the White House announced another $1.25 billion for black farmers not included in the initial class action settlement.

The more than $2 billion that black farmers are slated to receive helps explain the anger Hispanic farmers have expressed since their settlement offer was made public. Though it’s not clear exactly how many farmers would be eligible for the settlement, the number could reach the tens of thousands.

Stephen Hill, the attorney for the Hispanic farmers, argues that it’s not fair for them to receive about half of what black farmers are getting despite being more numerous (the 2007 Department of Agriculture census shows 30,599 black-owned farms and 55,570 Hispanic-owned farms in the U.S.). And the Hispanic farmers would share the $1.33 billion with female farmers, who number 306,000 according to the 2007 census, Hill said.

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The four cases have followed different paths. Though the cases brought by black and Native American farmers were certified as class action lawsuits, Hispanic and female farmers were denied such certification by a federal judge, a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice said that because of the denial, it could not negotiate a classwide settlement with Hispanic and female farmers, meaning they would have to pursue individual claims against the government.

But the Obama administration has made it a priority to settle large civil rights cases at the Department of Agriculture, and last month Justice Department officials reversed course and started negotiating with them as a group, officials said.

Native American farmers are also negotiating with the Department of Justice.

According to Hill, the settlement offer comes with a $50,000 cap on damages for individual farmers, regardless of how much they have lost. Black farmers were able to get many times that amount if they could prove their losses, he said.

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[“Who Wants to be Black Millionaire” and other articles related to the settlement between black farmers and the USDA can be accessed here.]

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