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Black farmers still seeking justice

Farmer Vern Switzer is known for his watermelon crops. hspace=4

Black farmers have held rallies across the South every day this week. Today they will converge in Columbia, South Carolina calling on the U.S. Government to "pay up." More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture admitted to decades of discrimination against black farmers. The USDA promised to compensate the farmers, but more than 70,000 have to yet to see a penny. Watermelon is what Vern Switzer is known for, which explains the juicy pink slice painted on his mailbox. Switzer is 63 years old, but he still single-handedly farms 19 acres that stretch along a busy country road just outside Winston Salem. In addition to watermelons, Switzer farms strawberries that are barely visible under the snow at this time of year. "They don't look that great right now, but I say in another 30 days, you wouldn't believe how that would be looking," says Switzer. "And Lord do they sell good at the farmer's market." Switzer leans into the wind and crunches over the frozen ground on his daily round of the fields. Collard greens and onions are peeking through the snow. Switzer is one of only about 30,000 black farmers in America today. They're mostly in the south and they represent just 1 percent of total farm operators in America, compared to 14 percent back in 1920. Switzer says black farmers are a dying breed. "And this is why you cannot get any more young black farmers in it because they see the struggle that the older black farmers got - being discriminated and mistreated," says Switzer. "Why would you want to get into something like that?" At his kitchen table strewn with seed catalogs, Switzer remembers his struggle to get a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It would take me probably six months to explain to you the trouble that I went through getting the nine acres that I own now," says Switzer. "So can you imagine what I would go through trying to get money enough for 100 acres?" A hundred acres is what he thought he'd have now, after 30 years of farming. But time and again Switzer says the USDA gave him the run around, delaying and denying his loan requests to buy more land. They said he didn't meet the standard for a government loan: "And it's the same standard for everybody - they say," says Switzer. "But that's a lie, too. I know farmers, white farmers that can get a loan quick, fast and in a hurry." In 1999, the USDA settled a class-action lawsuit, admitting to decades of discrimination against black farmers. Every U.S. Agriculture Secretary since then, including the current one, has committed to righting that wrong. Some 20,000 black farmers managed to navigate the maze of legal paperwork and receive an average settlement of $50,000. "It's the most maddening process that this country has ever done to a group of people, next to enslaving us," says Halifax County farmer Gary Grant. He did get a settlement check. Watermelon farmer Vern Switzer's claim was rejected because he didn't have the right documentation. More than 70,000 black farmers didn't hear about the settlement in time and applied late. They're still waiting to be paid. "Why we out here in 2010 talking about something that should have happened February 10 years ago?" demands Virginia farmer John Boyd. Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association to fight for that money and make sure the farmers had good lawyers. In 2008, he helped convince Congress to give those 70,000 late filing farmers a chance at the settlement. "There was a real wrong that was done here by the government," says Boyd. "There's been admission of guilt. There's been study after study. Secretary after secretary has come and gone, and the black farmers still ain't got their money." North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt says, "The primary issue now, I think, is just that there's not money appropriated to pay the successful claimants." Watt is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus which has tried since 1999 to get enough money in the budget for the black farmers: It would take about $3.5 billion dollars. President Obama put about a third of that in his budget last year. Congress cut it. This year, he's included it again, but talk of a spending freeze has black farmers worried enough to hold a series of rallies that culminate Monday in Washington, D.C. John Boyd says the farmers don't have time to wait until the economy rebounds to get their settlement money. "They're older, they're tired," says Boyd. "The average age of a black farmer is 60. And, and many have died you know waiting and thought they would get justice from the government and all of the promises that were made for decades."