Law | National

Magazine: Farmers hope for new era with USDA settlement





Cowboys & Indians Magazine reports on the $760 million Keepseagle settlement to resolve discrimination against Indian farmers and ranchers at the Department of Agriculture:
It can take time to heal an old wound. For Porter Holder, a Native American rancher who was denied a government land loan, it also took perseverance and an unfairly high interest rate. The fact that he was refused a cheaper and better option on discriminatory grounds, however, still stings.

More than 10 years ago, Holder, who was raised on a ranch, wanted something most Americans long for: land of his own. But he wasn’t rich; he needed a loan. So he headed to the government, thinking that’s where he could find it.

“I tried to buy a place,” Holder says. “I had 35 acres and a house that was paid for, and [the Farm Service Agency] had a place that had sat on their negative inventory for 11 years. So I went in and filled out the application — I’d been really careful, had checked my p’s and q’s. The guy looked at it and said, ‘You might as well withdraw this. You ain’t got nothing.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to withdraw it,’ and then he took a red ink pen and wrote ‘Withdrawn’ across the top and said, ‘Sign here.’ I said, ‘Is it because I’m Indian?’ and he said, ‘Have you thought about going through the tribe?’ ”

Though Holder was willing to put up his house and 35 acres for collateral, he was denied. So he found a place to lease instead, 30 miles from home. Two years later he bought a place from Farm Credit at an 8 percent interest rate. The USDA rate, by comparison, would have been just 3.5 percent.

The added cost and distance meant that it took him longer to achieve his goal, he says. “Two years I spent back and forth till I got to 75 momma cows.” Today, at age 44, he runs a 100-cow operation of his own in southeast Oklahoma in the Choctaw Nation and makes a comfortable living off the profits from his herd. But being forced to lease instead of buy meant he lost out on considerable income along the way. “My plan would’ve worked,” he says. “It did work. [But] I would’ve prospered.”

Stories like Holder’s are, unfortunately, not unusual. For years, Native Americans have faced discrimination from the USDA when applying for farm loans. Part of the problem was access. Though the 1990 Farm Bill started the process of opening USDA offices on reservation land, some Native ranchers were still left without local contact with USDA lending and program resources. There were also allegations of personal, person-to-person discrimination.

Get the Story:
A Loan Deferred (Cowboys and Indians August 2013)