Matthew Grant, a black farmer in Halifax County, N.C., believes he knows the main reason he and many other minority farmers are becoming an endangered species across the South.
"Discrimination," says Mr. Grant, who once produced soybeans and cotton on 200 acres.
Grant says the Farm Service Agency, the lending arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has treated him unfairly since 1976, when it began foreclosure proceedings after three disastrous crop seasons led him to default on loans.
Grant claims his children's efforts to assume the debt were refused, while sons of white farmers were allowed to assume debts. "They simply looked him in his face and said it didn't matter who he brought, or who he talked to, they were going to sell him out," says Gary Grant, his son.
Grant is one of a growing chorus of minority farmers who charge that the USDA has treated them unfairly, and though the complaints are not new, they are prompting renewed focus on a problem that many say has hastened the decline of minority farmers at an alarming rate.
Between 1920 and 1992, the number of black farmers, mostly in the South, has fallen from about 926,000 to 19,000, a rate 3.2 times that of white farmers, according to the Rural Coalition, a Washington-based organization.
"It's an emergency situation," says Lorette Picciano, the group's executive director.
In response, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman recently announced the creation of a team to audit civil rights issues. He also directed the department's inspector general to examine minority participation in lending programs and said the agency will hold a national forum early next year to enable minority farmers to discuss their concerns.
"There are and have been instances where we have found discrimination," admits Dallas Smith, deputy undersecretary of farm and foreign agricultural services. "The secretary has been working ... for some time to try to change the culture."
One problem, both USDA officials and minority advocates say, is that the Farm Services Agency is very decentralized, making it harder to control. And most of the discrimination allegations are made against local offices.
Black farmers complain that the agency has given loans to white farmers at lower rates than blacks, granted loans to blacks later in the crop season than whites, shelved black farmers' loan applications or entered false numbers on them. In some instances they say they've uncovered applications with the word "nigger" written across them.
While USDA officials agree discrimination has caused a decline in black farms, they say other factors are also involved. Small farms in general are disappearing, fewer young people are farming, and experts say the new farm bill hurts all small farmers. It states that no farmer who has defaulted on a USDA loan can get farm credit from the agency.
Still, experts say the agency has dragged its feet on the discrimination issue, even though complaints have surfaced for years. The US Commission on Civil Rights issued a 1983 report criticizing the agency. In 1990, a House of Representatives report found the agency had been a catalyst in the decline of minority farmers. And a lawsuit brought by six black and Hispanic farmers is now being heard in Washington.
Minority advocates say there are solutions. They urge the USDA to better inform minority farmers about their new right to vote for the county committees of their local agencies. They also push for more money for the Socially Disadvantaged Applicant Program, an authorization by Congress for outreach programs to minority farmers. Though authorized at $10 million in the late 1980s, it has been funded at between $1 million to $3 million.
Last year, the House proposed to eliminate it entirely. The program provides minority farmers with technical assistance and training, and helps them establish access to markets.
"Where that program is operating we're making some successes," says Ms. Picciano of the Rural Coalition. "Black land loss is not inevitable. If the USDA would expend some energy ... these farmers can be very successful."