BASKERVILLE, Va. - After years of searching for a way to give up welding and get into farming full time, Willie Crute Jr. thought he finally had hit pay dirt.
Perdue Farms was recruiting farmers to raise chickens, an opportunity Crute knew could enable him to turn a comfortable profit working 385 acres of farmland in the rolling meadows of southern Virginia.
But Crute, 38, says his dream was shattered by the federal agency established to help keep farmers in business. He says the Department of Agriculture deliberately delayed his application for a $119,000 loan to finance a new poultry house simply because he is black. The charge has been upheld by federal officials.
Crute is among hundreds of black farmers who have filed administrative complaints or lawsuits charging that USDA loan officials discouraged, delayed or rejected their loan applications because of their race. In many cases, the charges have been acknowledged by top USDA officials.
The farmers say such discrimination is a major reason that the nation's already tiny corps of black farmers is dwindling at three times the rate of farmers nationwide. Some call USDA "the last plantation."
"It's hard enough to make a living farming without adding discrimination to your problems," said John Boyd Jr., who faces foreclosure on his 173-acre Baskerville farm because of problems with USDA-administered loans. "It's not just one farmer here and another one there; it's happening all over."
The discrimination, department officials say, is not overt or blatant. Instead, it unfolds in a sprawling, decentralized bureaucracy, the cumulative result of hundreds of decisions made by USDA supervisors in 2,500 state, district and county offices across rural America.
While business reasons invariably are cited, the net result is that black farmers wait far longer for loan decisions and are far more likely to be rejected for loans than their white counterparts.
Government studies show that minority farmers are underrepresented on the local committees that make loan decisions. One internal USDA probe found that local officials were "rude and insensitive to black farmers," that their projected crop yields were calculated differently from those of white farmers and that blacks were sometimes rejected because of "computation errors."
The Civil Rights Commission, which studied the problem in the 1980s, said black farmers believe they "are subjected to disrespect, embarrassment and humiliation" by USDA officials.
Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, will lead a demonstration at the White House tomorrow to publicize the issue.
In anticipation of the protest, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday ordered his inspector general to investigate the department's huge backlog of discrimination complaints. Every USDA client should be "treated fairly, effectively and efficiently," Glickman said.
His statement did little to please members of the black farmers association, which is demanding that foreclosed farms be returned, pending foreclosures suspended and damages paid to farmers who have suffered discrimination.
Financing is the lifeblood of farming, whose practitioners generally take out large loans, based on the next crop, to cover their considerable operating expenses. Farmers who cannot obtain financing face bankruptcy, and the USDA is the lender of last resort for those shut out of the private credit market.
Crute's problems are typical. His loan was granted in January 1994 - a full year after he began his application. By then, the opportunity with Perdue had passed. "That was my ticket," said Crute, who sued the department last summer, "and they caused me to lose it."
In making a discrimination finding in Crute's case, USDA investigators said that white farmers in his county typically waited 84 days for loan decisions, while black farmers had to wait an average of 222 days.
Investigators also found that 84 percent of the white applicants had their loan applications approved, while only 56 percent of the black applicants were granted loans.
For years, farm advocates, federal civil rights officials and some members of Congress have cited discrimination in the USDA's huge loan programs as a major factor in the disappearance of many of the nation's black farmers.
Between 1982 and 1992, the number of black farmers in the United States dropped by 43 percent, from 33,250 to 18,816.
In explaining the disappearance of black-owned farms, a 1990 House committee report cited a lack of technical training among black farmers; the tendency of blacks to own much smaller, less-efficient farms; and a declining interest in farming among young blacks. But it also pointed to problems with programs to ensure fair treatment of minority farmers.
USDA has instituted programs aimed at stamping out discrimination, including civil rights training for managers and a small loan program for disadvantaged farmers. But USDA officials acknowledge that these efforts have had little impact, and black farmers say the discrimination continues.
"Every case you run into is basically the same, because you're confronted with the same good-ol'-boy network," said Tim Pigford, who worked 350 acres of farmland in Riegelwood, N.C., before his home was sold from under him last year after he was refused new federal loans. "That's why they call the Department of Agriculture `the last plantation.' "