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May 11, 2000 GC-060

United Methodists back African-American farmers

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — United Methodism's highest legislative body has thrown its support behind African-American farmers, voicing concern for their dwindling numbers and condemning U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies as "discriminatory."

Delegates attending the 2000 General Conference passed a resolution May 6 lamenting the decrease of black-owned farms and criticizing the agricultural office for practicing "widespread discrimination" with regard to African-American farmers. A 1982 Civil Rights Commission report found that if nothing were done about the crisis, black farmers would vanish in the year 2000.

The resolution, citing a 1990 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Operations, provided statistics and comparisons of land loss of white and black farmers from 1978. The governmental report said the number of black farms declined 57.3 percent or two and a half times the rate of loss for whites. The report also stated that between 1982 and 1987, black-operated farms decreased 30.9 percent, while white-operated farms dropped 6.6 percent.

Another 1992 report noted that between 1920 and 1978, the number of white-owned farms decreased 63 percent across the United States. That same report from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Census of Agriculture stated that between 1920 and 1992, the number of black farmers in the United States declined by 98 percent.

"In 1920, nearly 1 million black farmers tilled American soil; 70 years later, that number has dropped to fewer than 20,000," the delegates stated in the resolution.

Delegates said that although the United Methodist Church supports the rights of farmers to prosper, "this has not been the reality for African-American farmers."

"The continuing loss of ownership and control of agricultural land by African-American farmers has reduced their ability to achieve economic viability and financial independence," the resolution stated.

Delegates noted that the USDA’s practices "have cost black farmers loan approval, loan servicing and farm management assistance." The resolution stated that many black farmers have never learned about available services such as low interest rates and farm ownership loans for socially disadvantaged farmers.

Black farmers facing financial hardships often do not receive comprehensive advice before their farms are foreclosed or they are told that applications for credit programs are unavailable, the resolution stated.

Black farmers filed a class-action discrimination suit against the USDA, which was settled in 1999. The agency will provide $50,000 in cash plus debt forgiveness to qualified black farmers who were denied government loans or other assistance because of their race.

Unfortunately, the resolution said, the settlement was too little and too late because many African American farmers lost their land.

In a 783-33 vote, delegates said they:

Condemn "the discriminatory policies against African-American farmers" by private lenders and USDA;

Support strongly the need for the church, government and private sector to provide financial, technical and management assistance to thwart the decline of African-American farmland in the United States.

Applaud the settlement of the class-action suit;

Call on the USDA to "place stringent regulations to guard against discrimination; to "fully implement, without delay, the recommendations of the 1997 USDA Civil Rights Report and the National Commission on Small Farms Report; and to include black and other minority farmers on county committees that oversee USDA loan and other programs";

Call on the U.S. Congress to fund fully the Minority Outreach and Technical Assistance Program;

Call on the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and the Board of Global Ministries to work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and other community-based organizations to address the needs of black farmers and to improve access to USDA programs.

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--Linda Green

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