Suit might apply to Md. farmers; Farm bias settlement could benefit those who left land decades ago


The settlement of a discrimination suit filed by hundreds of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week could reach back to farmers a generation removed from the land.

Though no black farmers in Maryland are part of the suit, it's possible that some will come forward, according to lawyers in the case.

"You might have someone who is a factory worker in Baltimore, who grew up on that Southern Maryland farm, whose dad couldn't get the loan in 1981 so he had to close it in 1983," said Phillip Fraas, a Washington attorney representing the black farmers. "That person would be eligible."

Under the settlement, the Department of Agriculture has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle with black farmers who say the department discriminated against them by denying loans and other subsidies.

The number of Maryland's black farmers dwindled steadily over the last 40 years, but a sharp decrease occurred between 1950, when 3,595 black farmers were counted in the USDA census, and 1969, when 682 were counted. And their numbers declined at a faster rate than those of white farmers.

In some cases, young people left the farm to find more lucrative opportunities in cities. And because black farms were usually smaller, they were less profitable to begin with. Their size also made it more difficult to parcel out land to children who might have wanted to farm.

Many of the farms that survived did so because their owners took full-time jobs and continued to farm a dozen or so acres part time, or they diversified, sometimes in creative ways.

Nixon Farm in West Friendship survived by turning its focus to recreational use. Corporations, private groups and families hold picnics, retreats and other parties on the Howard County property, while owner Mildred Nixon continues to farm organic vegetables and do aquaculture -- raising fish for food.

"This farm has always been used for group activities," said Randall Nixon, son of Mildred Nixon and the late Roosevelt Nixon. Roosevelt Nixon bought the 162 acres 42 years ago with money earned as a champion middleweight boxer and from a chain of neighborhood grocery stores in Baltimore.

"In the '50s, there was no place for blacks and Jews to go. Everything was restricted," Randall Nixon said. So his father's business associates -- most of whom were black or Jewish -- suggested that he have group parties there.

In the 1970s, Roosevelt Nixon died during a robbery at one of his East Baltimore stores, leaving Mildred with two children in private school.

"She researched it and she determined that except for housing, the highest return on our land is for recreation," Randall Nixon said. They expanded, included catering and group outings, and built a softball field and a basketball court.

Randall Nixon was among the youths who left their farms in the 1970s and 1980s. He never thought he'd be back walking the sheared and snow-covered corn and alfalfa fields. When he was younger, he groaned at the work.

"At 5 in the morning, you've got to slop hogs and feed the cattle. You can imagine," he said. "So as a kid, from that perspective, it was pretty unattractive."

His parents raised him to go to college and be a lawyer or an academic. He earned degrees from Cornell and the Johns Hopkins universities, and graduated from law school at Indiana University. He practiced for several years, but found that for all his hard work, long hours and the ulcer he was developing, he was hitting a glass ceiling.

Now he makes his own way with the family farm and business. The livestock are long gone.

"When I was going to law school and my mother was trying to decide how she was going to get the money, she looked out on the fields, and thought, 'hmm,' " Randall Nixon said. She sold the animals.

Even successful black farmers feel the sting of discrimination. Randall Nixon says he has lost some business because he is black.

"There's a perception in the marketplace that minority businesses are not as consistently good," he said. "But you can find the tools to compete. There are some people who come to me because I'm black. Minorities feel comfortable here. And that's OK, too."

The business he does get includes corporations such as AT&T;, Bell Atlantic, the Rouse Co. and NationsBank.

"The whole dynamics of farming have changed over a number of years," said Joseph Haamid, a district conservationist in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of USDA. Haamid, who is black and grew up in Pumphrey, near Linthicum, has worked with farmers in every corner of the state since 1978.

For the most part, he believes, the number of black farmers dwindled for the same reason white farmers were disappearing. Farming a small parcel simply became less profitable.

"Farming is hard work. So you have a lot of people who, when they were old enough, moved away," Haamid said. "The labor force was children -- people had big families -- and when those kids got older, they got on the trains and those trains had direct runs to Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. And they didn't come back."

Haamid isn't sure why, but farming wasn't a priority during the civil rights movement. Even in his family, relatives were perplexed when he went to Florida to major in agriculture and soil conservation. It wasn't seen as the way to move up in the world.

In Maryland, many black farmers may have avoided applying for USDA loans because they assumed they would be turned down, he said.

"People will choose not to participate if you do not have people from your community on some of those decision-making boards," Haamid said.

"I don't know of any cases of outright discrimination, but there's a lot of work that needs to be done to do better outreach," Haamid said.

The USDA settlement offers farmers who can show evidence of discrimination a $50,000 payment, plus forgiveness of any USDA debt. Other options are available for farmers who can show more blatant cases of discrimination, and for farmers who don't have sufficient documentation to pursue a settlement.

The lawsuit began in 1997, when North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford came to Fraas, the Washington lawyer, for help in getting the USDA to compensate him for losses he suffered after nearly 20 years of loan denials from his local USDA office.

After Fraas noted that Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman had been holding hearings investigating other cases of discrimination, the case grew to a class-action suit, with similar cases of county USDA offices denying services to black farmers.

Congress passed legislation this fall allowing the case to go back as far as 1981, Fraas said, which could reach back a generation.

"It's certainly something that blacks in Maryland should be looking at," Fraas said. "There could be something there."

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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