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Update on Tennessee farmers protest

Black farmers called yesterday for the removal of the U.S. agriculture secretary and vowed to continue their occupation of one of her department's loan offices in west Tennessee through the Fourth of July holiday.
Black Farmers Seek Firing Of Agriculture Secretary
USDA Office Sit-In In Tennessee to Go Through Holiday

by Darryl Fears

Black farmers called yesterday for the removal of the U.S. agriculture secretary and vowed to continue their occupation of one of her department's loan offices in west Tennessee through the Fourth of July holiday.

In a tersely worded letter to President Bush, the farmers requested that Secretary Ann M. Veneman be fired for refusing to accept their telephone calls during a sit-in that began Monday.

Farmers claiming discrimination in federal crop loans join hands during prayer at a protest by the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, Monday, July 1, 2002, in Brownsville, Tenn., in front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Haywood County Agricultural Extension Agency. The protest focused on the same claims that led to a multimillion dollar settlement three years ago of a class-action lawsuit brought by black farmers from across the country. Protesters said that settlement has failed to stop the unfair treatment and the government has been slow in paying claims stemming from the suit. (AP Photo/Greg Campbell)

"Farmers who have taken over the USDA office . . . are not 'terrorists,' as referred to by one of your political appointees," wrote Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. "But rather we are hard-working, tax-paying citizens who know that it is time for your USDA to do the right thing by black farmers."

The Bush administration declined to comment on the request. On Tuesday, Veneman had responded to the farmers for the first time, addressing Grant in a letter that applauded the agency's effort to right historical injustices to black farmers.

"USDA is deeply committed to treating all of its customers in a fair and equal manner," Veneman wrote to Grant. "We have demonstrated that our civil rights program is a top USDA priority by increasing staffing and funding of the office of civil rights."

Grant said he would prefer that the department increase funding to black farmers.

In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit in which African American farmers claimed that they had been denied loans by regional bureaus for decades when white farmers had not been. As of February, the agency had paid more than $615 million on slightly less than half of the 22,600 claims filed, according to statistics posted on the agency's Web site.

But current loan applications from black farmers continue to be processed slowly, the farmers said. They staged this week's protest in support of five Tennessee farmers who were still waiting for their Farmer Service Agency loans to be processed when planting season ended July 1.

Veneman told Grant in her letter that she had asked for a immediate update on the status of the five loan requests. "We take all suggestions of unfair treatment very seriously," Veneman's letter said.

Grant was unimpressed. "I appreciate your untimely response to our requests," he shot back in his own letter. "I am extremely disappointed that you have once again established another process by which to address these issues at the USDA top echelon.

"Your letter is unacceptable, as it does not provide us a date or time to meet with you," Grant wrote.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere at the protest site lost its confrontational edge. Federal workers at the bureau returned to work Tuesday, answering telephones and reviewing loan applications. The farmers sequestered themselves in a conference room, peeking around corners and walking through the office from time to time. A federal police officer stopped by the site to evaluate the situation and told the protesters that they would not be arrested.

Tom Burrell, a Tennessee farmer who serves on the board of the BFAA, said black families were allowing the 25 growers who continued the protest to shower and breakfast at their homes. Other farmers showered in the Days Inn room of an attorney, James Myart.

"Looks to me like we'll be here through Independence Day," Burrell said. He said some of the 300 farmers who had started the protest would return from Kansas, Arkansas and Georgia to rejoin the demonstration. Burrell said the group was planning a Fourth of July picnic.

Inell Farrington Keller, whose husband owns a successful farm, came by to show support. "I heard about it on the radio and thought it was the right thing to do," said Keller, who is black. "There would be other farmers here, but this is the harvest season and they must be out taking care of their crops."

2002 The Washington Post Company