One unhappy night in 1992, 40-year-old Timothy Pigford, a fourth-generation black farmer having a terrible time of it trying to grow soybeans in North Carolina, sat in the living room of the house he was barely holding on to and drew up the outline of a lawsuit against the federal government. It was a decision more than 15 years in coming, ever since the first of the many times he’d been denied a USDA loan because — he was convinced — of the color of his skin. Before all was said and done, he would spend 20 years of his life trying to convince government officials, members of Congress, judges, and even the president that the USDA had ruined him even as it had given similarly situated whites the credit and support they needed to thrive as farmers. He’d go bankrupt in the process — losing his farmland, his home, and the 1990 Toyota he would put 350,000 miles on traveling up I-95 to Washington to press his case — while his relationship with his wife and two teenage sons would be stressed to the breaking point.
But eventually, he’d win.
And in finally securing justice for himself and the few hundred farmers who first joined his class-action suit, he’d unwittingly set off an injustice greater than the one he sought to rectify: one that would involve the waste of billions of dollars, systemic fraud implicating top federal officials, the unseemly electioneering of two presidential campaigns — even murder.
Timothy Pigford’s discrimination case looks plausible. In an extensive 1998 profile in Business North Carolina magazine, Pigford spoke at length about his upbringing in the segregated South, where goodly white farmers sometimes let his father bundle his tobacco crop with theirs so the white auctioneers would give him a fair price. A college dropout, Pigford rented and farmed a small tract of land, and paid for a John Deere by working the night shift at a chemical plant. In 1976, after three years of putting in 100-hour weeks to bolster his operations, he submitted an application for a $110,000 loan through the county representative of the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), a descendant of the New Deal that gave credit and grants to rural farmers for homes, capital investments, irrigation, and disaster relief. Pigford wanted to own the land he worked.
His loan was denied.
He got other loans from the USDA, including $21,500 to buy a home later that same year, short-term loans he repaid when he sold his crops, and disaster relief when Hurricane Diana struck in 1984. But he was convinced he wasn’t getting a fair shot at success, even as white farmers who worked nearby land were getting loans to expand their operations.
In 1984, a fed-up and indebted Pigford testified before a House committee investigating USDA loan practices, a move he says made him even more of a target for the USDA reps back home. Denials of debt-restructuring and operating loans followed. By 1992, $55,000 behind on $200,000 in loans, Pigford drew up his suit and began lobbying his congressman to take up his cause — and that of other black farmers in the district, who Pigford believed were subject to the same discrimination.
On its own, Pigford’s case was probably a coin flip. On one hand, a 1986 USDA inspector general’s report shows that two white farmers named by Pigford received better treatment from FmHA officials, getting large loans quickly despite problems with their applications. On the other hand, the local FmHA officials who handled Pigford’s loan applications were cleared of wrongdoing by a separate internal probe: They said they had denied the loan because financing costs, on top of the fact that Pigford’s tract was already losing money, made his plan uneconomic.