It came after Gary Grant, president of the influential and Pigford-evangelizing Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, had written Obama a letter promising him all the financial and ballot support the BFAA could marshal in the rural South in exchange for his continued work on the plight of the black farmer. Grant had told Fox News he didn’t care whether all the Pigford claimants were really farmers, since “if you are an African American, you deserve $50,000, because your roots are in farming, and your folk have already been cheated.” Claimants, according to Grant, were “collecting what [their] grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to.”
Obama’s championing of Pigford II was seen by some as part of an effort to run up the score against Hillary Clinton with rural black voters in tough southern primaries. Whatever its purpose, the bill languished in committee through the 110th Congress. But Obama didn’t forget. As president, he signed the Pigford II legislation, and charged agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and attorney general Eric Holder with negotiating a new settlement for unpaid claimants. It came in February 2010, with Vilsack’s announcement that the federal government would no longer stand vis-à-vis Pigford claimants “as an adversary, but as a partner.”
The settlement made use of $100 million in funds already available for unsettled claims, and in December 2010, Congress added substantially to the kitty, appropriating $1.2 billion after a last-minute blitz by Vilsack to wring votes out of a reluctant lame-duck session.
Meanwhile, the gravy train shows no signs of slowing down. Many of the few hundred farmers who composed the original Pigford class have wound up like Timothy Pigford himself — driven out of farming altogether — or like Willie Head.
Head, a 58-year-old, third-generation farmer and rancher who produces melons, corn, soybeans, and livestock on the southwestern Georgia parcel he bought from his father in 1980, was one of the first Pigford plaintiffs. Throughout the early 1980s, many of the loan applications he filed were rejected with little cause, and those he was granted were placed in bank accounts jointly operated by USDA supervisors, a condition to which no similarly situated white farmer was subject. By 1984, Head had gone bankrupt, taking writedowns that have to this day precluded him from asking for any further USDA loans.
He says that when the consent decree was approved, he initially intended to file for broader compensation under Track B, but was pressured by lawyers like Pires to take the sure $50,000 promised by Track A.
“We were drowning,” he says, “and we took whatever rope we could get, no matter who it was that was handing it to us.”
Head used the money he received to buy a used pickup truck to haul his produce and to fix his rundown tractor. But he also waited nine years for the debt relief promised in the original settlement, relief that never came. Had he known, he says, he would have spent differently.
Head says Pigford “did more harm than good” for black farmers “who are still out here, working the land,” because accepting the settlement meant being “shut out for life” from further compensation.
Head is still farming, “with what I can scrape and can scoop,” but he can afford to work only half his land, and imagines he’ll eventually sell it to the white farmer who owns an adjacent plot. His daughter has passed away, and his son has seen too much to have any interest in carrying the family tradition through a fourth generation.
At a December 8 signing ceremony, President Obama heralded Pigford II as the close of “a long and unfortunate chapter in our history.” In a way, one hopes the president is right — that the credulity, or perhaps the shame, of the American government and its taxpayers cannot be strained to accommodate the petty greed of more than 94,000 phantom farmers, and that the con will finally have run its course. But that is unlikely. Two Pigford-style class-action suits — one for Hispanic farmers, another for women — with the potential to dwarf current settlements are working their way through the courts. Like so many Pigfords to the trough.