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The vanishing black farmer

Discrimination settlement illumines mounting difficulties

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When Abraham Carpenter scans this fertile black Delta soil, he sees 30 years of hard work.

Peeking out from beneath his baseball cap in the sultry summer heat, his comments are as brief as his breaks for lunch or a quick sip of ice water. "Farming is our way of life," he says simply.

Like many African-American farmers in the South, where the land is as much a part of heritage as a family name, he says his heart is tied to these rows of tomatoes, corn, and peas.

And like many African-American farmers in the South, he says his wallet is increasingly tied to the US government.

Along with 10,000 current and former farmers, Mr. Carpenter is part of a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture, alleging that the agency discriminated against blacks.

He's spent $300,000 in legal fees fighting the government. And although the government last month agreed to pay more than $635 million, the money is still tied up in appeals and legal wrangling.

Throughout the tobacco rows and cotton fields of the South, the lawsuit has split communities, and the delays in payment have led to protests. But beyond that, the upheaval has focused greater attention on the future of farmers like Carpenter, who are struggling to maintain a stake in the land that their ancestors fought for during the days of Jim Crow.

Perhaps nowhere is this battle more heated than in the flat, impoverished region of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, where farming is the staple of the local economy, and race relations remain tense more than 30 years after the civil rights movement.

Forces of change

Certainly, in south Arkansas, the plight of the African-American farmers extends beyond the class-action lawsuit. Farming experts say blacks have fallen victim to the same economic forces that have affected all small farmers - basically, the rise of corporate agriculture.

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