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Jun 16, 2018

Losing ground (rebroadcast)

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode was originally broadcast July 1, 2017.

Picture an American farmer. Chances are, the farmer you’re imagining is white – more than 9 out of 10 American farmers today are. But historically, African Americans played a huge role in agriculture. The nation’s economy was built largely on black farm labor: in bondage for hundreds of years, followed by a century of sharecropping and tenant farming.

In the early 1900s, African American families owned one-seventh of the nation’s farmland, 15 million acres. A hundred years later, black farmers own only one-quarter of the land they once held and now make up less than 1 percent of American farm families.

The federal government has admitted it was part of the problem. In 1997, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said discrimination by the agency was a factor in the decline of black farms. A landmark class-action lawsuit on behalf of black farmers, Pigford v. Glickman, was settled in 1999, and the government paid out more than $2 billion as a result. But advocates for black farmers say problems persist.

On this episode of Reveal, reporter John Biewen of “Scene on Radio” tells the story of a black farmer who says the USDA treated him unfairly because of his race.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Ledson: For the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Ledson.
For Eddie Wise owning a farm was a lifelong dream. But for a black man born in North Carolina in the 1940s, it wasn't that easy. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all sharecroppers, but Eddie wanted a farm of his own. To get that, he felt he'd have to go into the world.
Eddie Wise: When I turned 18, I signed up to go in the Army.
Al Ledson: Eddie was working in a tobacco field when an Army recruiter showed up.
Eddie Wise: And I raised both hands and said, "Here I come."
Al Ledson: When he walked off that farm he made himself a vow.
Eddie Wise: I said, "The next time I'm on a farm, I'm going to be owning that bad boy. I'm not working on no farm for nobody else."
Al Ledson: Years later Eddie would get his own farm, but he says that over a 25 year period, the US Department of Agriculture discriminated against him and his wife, Dorothy, because of their race and finally drove them off their land. We first brought you this story back in July 2017. John B. went on the podcast, [Seen 00:01:08] on Radio, followed the Wises for years, and investigated what happened to them.
John B.: So what's the day today?
Eddie Wise: Today is the ... what? I don't know.
John B.: I think it's the 20th.
Eddie Wise: Today is January 20th, Wednesday.
John B.: January 20, 2016, 8:40 a.m. I've just arrived at Eddie Wise's farm. It's a small 106 acre hog operation on rolling land near Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. The driveway bends around a grove of trees leading to the mobile home where Eddie lives with his wife, Dorothy. I've driven out this morning because Eddie called and said something was about to go down. I've just turned on my recorder. We're talking when one of Eddie's dogs interrupts, announcing the arrival of the expected guest.

 

Eddie Wise: Let's walk on up this way.

 

John B.: Here they come around that curve. White SUVs and squad cars. Seven vehicles in all. Officers spill out. I count 14 men and women, mostly US Marshalls with a few county deputies as backup. Some of the Marshalls carry semi-automatic rifles.

 

Eddie Wise: [inaudible 00:02:24] down.

 

Speaker 1: [inaudible 00:02:25] sir.

 

Eddie Wise: My dogs don't bite.

 

Speaker 1: Sir.

 

Eddie Wise: I said my dogs don't bite.

 

John B.: The US Marshall, the leader of the operation, approaches Eddie and presents the papers.

 

Speaker 1: I'm the Deputy [inaudible 00:02:36] with the Marshall service. You obviously know what's going on. [crosstalk 00:02:38] the judgment-

 

Eddie Wise: I know you all were coming.

 

Speaker 1: Yes, sir. There's a Foreclosure Judgment that's been issued against you, and a Seizure Order, man. So, we're going to have to remove you from your residence this morning, and there are certain items that are going to be taken. Okay?

 

Eddie Wise: Well my wife is sick.

 

Speaker 1: Okay. We'll work with you and give you a reasonable amount of time, but you are going to have to get your wife and vacate the premises this morning, sir. Okay? There're items that we're going to be seizing on your property. There's a full list in here, and this copy is for you.

 

John B.: Eddie takes the document and studies it. He has a round face and a farmer's thick hands. He's still a formidable presence at 72 years old.

 

Speaker 1: What's wrong with your wife this morning? What is your wife suffering from?

 

Eddie Wise: My wife is suffering from three and a half years of stress.

 

Speaker 1: I understand that.

 

John B.: Eddie was told the Marshalls would be coming to seize farm equipment because he hadn't made payments on his government loan, but he says he didn't know he and Dorothy would be evicted today.

 

Eddie Wise: So I'm supposed to take my wife and just walk off?

 

Speaker 1: Yes, sir. Unfortunately, that's the order from the court. Do you have any weapons in the house, sir?

 

Eddie Wise: Of course I have weapons in the house. I'm on a farm.

 

Speaker 1: I understand that. It's just a question I have to ask.

 

Eddie Wise: Yes.

 

Speaker 1: Okay.

 

Eddie Wise: I'm a retired Green Beret.

 

Speaker 1: I understand that as well, sir, and I appreciate your service. Can we walk in with you? We'll walk up with you, we just want to make sure everything's fine. I'll let you get your wife. We're not going to interfere with you getting your wife by any means, okay? But we do need to walk in with you.

 

John B.: In the past, when dealing with USDA officials, Eddie's been known to get angry and threaten violence. But this day, he's calm and polite.

 

Speaker 1: But until that time, we have to go forward, Mr. Watson.

 

Eddie Wise: Yes, sir. I have a major problem.

 

John B.: The armed Marshalls follow Eddie into his mobile home.

 

Speaker 1: After you, sir. Your residence.

 

John B.: Inside, the Marshalls secure Eddie's weapons.

 

Speaker 2: The rifle right there and the pistol, have you got any more guns in the house?

 

Eddie Wise: Yeah, I got a shotgun right behind the door.

 

Speaker 2: Can we get that one, too.

 

John B.: Eddie wakes Dorothy. She has diabetes and can't walk well. Once she's dressed, Eddie will have to help her to the car. An hour later, evicted from their farm and home of 20 years, they sit in their car in a church parking lot across the road. Eddie's in the front seat. Dorothy's in back.

 

Eddie Wise: Brown shirt.

 

Dorothy: Yeah.

 

Eddie Wise: You sounded okay. It's going to be all right, baby. We're just going to have to figure out where we're going to stay and what we're going to do.

 

John B.: I ask Dorothy what she's thinking and feeling.

 

Dorothy: I don't feel anything, because I'm just along with what ... I don't know, Eddie was saying, and what was happening to us.

 

John B.: Yeah.

 

Dorothy: I don't approve of it, but what can we do at this point?

 

John B.: As we sit in the quiet of the car and talk, a truck pulling a stock trailer pulls out of the farm road maybe 50 yards from us, and drives away, carrying away dozens of hogs.

 

Eddie Wise: There goes the pigs. That was a stock trailer.

 

Dorothy: Hmm.

 

John B.: That night, the couple would find a room at a low-cost motel. I met the Wises almost 10 years ago. I was working on a documentary about family farmers. I visited their place a bunch of times, recording as they went about their days and as Eddie worked with their small herd of 250 hogs.

 

Dorothy: Eddie. Eddie.

 

John B.: That's Dorothy in the farm yard.

 

Eddie Wise: [inaudible 00:06:34].

 

Dorothy: Where are you?

 

Eddie Wise: Here in the back house.

 

John B.: Dorothy tells Eddie in a mock scolding voice to live up to his last name.

 

Eddie Wise: Be Wise. Well, I think the most wise thing that I did was seeing this foxy lady walking in the hallway at Howard University and got to know her, and later on, made her my wife.

 

John B.: The couple met in 1988 in Washington, DC.

 

Eddie Wise: The Army sent me to Howard University to teach. I was teaching the Military Science Department, and mobile operations, propelling, jumping, air assaults. She was the grant manager for the College of Medicine. She said, "The spirit of the Lord told me that a man that come in my life would bring everything." She said, "I've wanted a farm all my life." So I told her, I said, "You're kidding me."

 

Dorothy: He told me he was going to a farm.

 

Eddie Wise: I said, "Don't let this three piece suit fool you. I'm on my way home in North Carolina to [inaudible 00:07:35] a farm right now." I said, "I'm going to [inaudible 00:07:37] North Carolina to pick blueberries this weekend."

 

Dorothy: So I said, "Okay."

 

Eddie Wise: She said, "Let me get my hat."

 

Dorothy: So I got my hat, put it on, and we drove down there and picked blueberries all day long.

 

Eddie Wise: And I mean, it's been a roll ever since this. We been married for 16 years now.

 

Dorothy: So, life to me, can be very enjoyable. If you have somebody with you that you constantly can communicate with, and you enjoy them and they enjoy you. You will help them no matter what you have to do.

 

John B.: But in 2016, the US government would take the Wise's farm and run them off.

 

Al Ledson: So, how did that end up happening? The Wises claim that government officials discriminated against them for over 25 years, and set them up to fail.

 

Eddie Wise: Back in the day, a loan officer would loan money to people they know that said, "We need some money." Then, when we, as blacks, went in to ask, they would say, "Well all the money is gone."

 

Al Ledson: Reporter John [Bewin 00:08:57] picks up this story when we come back on Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Ledson. A century ago, black families owned about 15% of American farmland. Today, only 1% of farm families are African American. The US Department of Agriculture has called itself, "A contributing factor in the dramatic decline of black farmers." That's from a USDA report 20 years ago.

 

Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. It's known as the "Pigford Case" after a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford. The case was settled in 1999.

 

Speaker 3: A court found that farmers had been systematically denied aide solely because they were black. Loans, grants and subsidies that white farmers received.

 

Al Ledson: As a result, the government paid black farmers more than two billion dollars: One payout at the end of the 90s, and another authorized by President Obama in 2010.

 

President Obama: This isn't simply a matter of making amends. It's about reaffirming our values on which this nation was founded. Principles of fairness, and equality, and opportunity.

 

Al Ledson: The question is, did the USDA fix the problem? Eddie and Dorothy Wise said government officials discriminated against them both before and after the Black Farmers Settlement. So, back to their story. Here's John Bewin.

 

John B.: Dorothy and Eddie Wise found the farm they wanted in North Carolina in 1991. Almost no one buys a farm without a loan, and certainly the Wises could not. That meant dealing with the US Agriculture Department, and its lending arm then called The Farmers Home Administration, or FHA.

 

Eddie Wise: The [goodable 00:10:59] in that had an unwritten system. If you walked into FHA and you were black, the first thing they did was close the books and they said no to anything that you asked from that point in. They said they didn't have applications. If you got the application, they wouldn't tell you how to fill it out. When you finally got it filled out and turned into them, then they hit you, "Oops, we're out of money."

 

John B.: The Wises say all those things and more happened to them. The loan officer and the county office stonewalled them at every turn, they say, from the time they walked into his office in 1991 until their loan was finally approved in 1996. The loan officer, Sydney Long, is now retired. I reached him on the phone. "I'm not interested in talking about that at all," he told me. "Do that, and it comes back to bite you."

 

The USDA in Washington declined to answer questions about the Wise's case, because Dorothy and Eddie have a lawsuit pending against the department. But there's someone else who is in the position to know about the Wise's relationship with the USDA. Carl Bond lives on this family's 140 acre farm on the edge of Windsor, North Carolina.

 

Carl Bond: My father's operation is up the main road, where they used to live. Both my mom and my dad now is deceased-

 

John B.: Andre retired in 2011 after a 32 career with the USDA in North Carolina. Back in the 1990s when the Wises were struggling to get their application processed, Eddie heard about Bond and reached out to him. He was the only African American loan officer in the state.

 

Carl Bond: He came to my office. He said, "Would you assist me with this application?" I said, "Well, yes. But did you ask the loan officer that you got it from?" He said, "Yes, we asked him and he said you are a retired officer from the United States Army. Y'all should be able to do it."

 

John B.: Is that a normal thing for a loan officer to say to decline to help a farmer looking for a loan?

 

Carl Bond: No, we was required, and still is required, that if a farmer needed assistance, to have them fill out the forms.

 

John B.: Bond says he'd heard plenty about Sydney Long, the Wise's white loan officer, from the black farmers he talked to.

 

Carl Bond: Sydney came from the good ole' boys back in the day, white loan officers would loan money to people they know that said, "We need some money," and then when we as blacks went in to ask, they would say, "Well, all the money is gone."

 

John B.: I wondered, was Sydney Long just being ungenerous in refusing to help the Wises with their loan application, or was he violating regulations? I called this guy.

 

Steven C.: My name is Steven Carpenter. I am a lawyer at Farmers Legal Action Group, non-profit law firm in Minnesota that works on behalf of family farmers.

 

John B.: Carpenter says the requirement Carl Bond referred to, that loan officers help applicants with their forms, is based in law, passed by Congress. Carpenter reads from an agency handbook from the time we're talking about.

 

Steven C.: The USDA officials should provide information about all services to all people who ask, that they are to explain all types programs. Perhaps most importantly in the middle 90s, their own regulation says that USDA officials will give whatever assistance as necessary to complete the application.

 

John B.: So the Wises filled out the form with help from Carl Bond. But now their loan officer, Sydney Long, told them their credit was poor. The Wises appealed to the national USDA office and won. By this time the FHA had become the FSA, the Farm Service Agency. The Wises told the state director, an appointee of the Clinton Administration, about what was happening with Sydney Long. The state director intervened and approved the Wise's purchase of the land.

 

Eddie Wise: It took us five years to get it. We prevailed. I told my wife, I said, "When God is blessing, no man can stop you."

 

John B.: But the Wise's troubles with the USDA were far from over. They'd bought the land, but like most farmers, they also needed an operating loan to get up and running. The hog buildings on the farm needed work, new roofs and a kind of heavy duty curtain on the sides to block the winter wind. Their $170,000.00 operating loan was approved in 1997.

 

That money was supposed to be released within weeks. Counting on that, the Wises scheduled the building repairs for later in the spring. They put down money on dozens of breeding hogs and made plans to pick them up after their buildings were renovated. But Eddie says Sydney Long, the loan officer, delayed the release of the Wise's operating loan.

 

Eddie Wise: He drug the loan process out for seven damn months.

 

John B.: Eddie had to call off the repairs, but he had already committed to picking up his hogs.

 

Eddie Wise: By the time we got ready to bring them home in September, over half of them was already pregnant, and I had nothing but an open building with nothing but concrete floors. There were no curtains, and I had got some rolls of plastic and tried to put up makeshift curtains to break the wind from blowing in there.

 

John B.: Winter nights in North Carolina often dip below freezing.

 

Eddie Wise: A newborn pig comes out at 90 degrees, and he hits the concrete floor, and you're talking about four or five minutes before he's dead. I lost ... I had a little over 400 pigs that freezed to death.

 

John B.: For the Wises, the loss of almost their entire herd was catastrophic. It put them in a hole they never dug out of.

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

John B.: It put them in a hole they never dug out of. Why the delay in releasing their operating loan?

 

They say Sydney Long told them there was no money in the loan fund. Carl Bond, the African American loan officer who helped the Wises fill out their application, finds that puzzling.

 

Carl Bond: Their loan would have fell under Social Disadvantage Loan funds.

 

John B.: That's a fund for certain kinds of farmers, including African Americans and women.

 

Carl Bond: There was plenty of social disadvantage money available at that time. All the loans I have for my social disadvantaged customer went in and got funded.

 

John B.: I requested internal USDA documents on the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Fund through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents back up Carl Bond's memory. In 1997, the year the Wises applied, the fund ended the year with more than $200 million unspent.

 

By 1998, the Wises had secured their farm and they eventually got their hog sheds improved, but they had almost no hogs. Now they had to try building a herd again from scratch and make their loan payments. Eddie says he went and complained to the FSA director about Sydney Long.

 

Eddie Wise: He said call [inaudible 00:18:22] county to tell Carl Bonds I want him here and his supervisor. He said, "By the way Mr. Wise, Carl Bond is black." I said, "Good." Carl came.

 

John B.: That's how Carl Bond came to take over as the Wise's loan officer, even though Bond was assigned to other counties and his office was 50 miles away. It was an extraordinary move by the FSA.

 

Carl Bond sums up the situation that Eddie found himself in after most of his hogs froze to death in the winter of 1997-98.

 

Carl Bond: He was behind the eight ball and it got worse and worse as the time went on. That's why they moved him to me, and I had to then service the loan.

 

John B.: Bond extended the terms on the Wise's loan and allowed them to make small payments on their interest, payments they could manage while they gradually built back their herd. This kept them on the farm for more than a decade.

 

Eddie Wise: It's a cold sunny day, it's a pretty day though.

 

John B.: When I visited the Wises in the winter of 2009, Eddie was about to take a truckload of hogs to slaughter.

 

Eddie Wise: Once they're slaughtered, they'll be processed into pork chops, sausage, ribs, neck bone, pig tails, pig ears. All the goodies, all of the above. When I look at a pig, I see potential dollars. When I smell pig poop, that's money. It's a business.

 

John B.: The hog operation wasn't bringing in a lot of money.

 

Eddie Wise: My income right now is, between the wife and I, $55,000 a year non-farm income.

 

John B.: That income came from Eddie's army pension, Dorothy's retirement from Howard University, and their two social security checks.

 

Eddie Wise: That $55,000 a year non-farm income helps us stay on the farm. We're pulling down roughly about $15,000-$16,000 a year on the farm. You can't run a hog operation like that. It's tight.

 

John B.: The farm was alive. Eddie and Dorothy had the life they wanted as one of the few remaining black American farm families. Eddie dreamed that someday he'd pass the farm onto his son. In the farmyard, Eddie calls his three dogs. He's had them since they were puppies.

 

Eddie Wise: That's right, real time. They're a cross between St. Bernard and labs. Runt was the smallest one, that's the solid brown. Jed is the male, Spotter is his sister. They're sisters and brothers. Come on Jed, come on Runt.

 

John B.: Eddie still had those dogs in 2016. The US Marshals took them away even though they were pets, not farm animals. The marshals told the Wises they took the dogs to the pound where they were given to three different families.

 

You may be wondering, couldn't the Wises have benefited from Pigford, that class action legal settlement with the USDA? The answer is probably. 13,000 black families received one time $50,000 payments from that settlement. Eddie says the loan officer's obstructions cost his farm a lot more than that.

 

Eddie Wise: We weren't going to take $50,000 because $50,000 wasn't no money.

 

John B.: Another option under Pigford allowed farmers to sue for more money if they could prove discrimination more directly. For that, the Wises would have had to hire a lawyer and show that their local FSA office had treated white farmers better.

 

Eddie Wise: How are you going to get the names of the seven white farms?

 

John B.: They didn't know how. They tried suing on their own but again they needed to prove that similarly situated white farmers were treated better. They couldn't and the case was dismissed. The Wises moved on.

 

Eddie Wise: I was just concentrating on trying to manage the farm.

 

John B.: During the dozen years he managed their loan, Carl Bond helped the Wises refinance several times. This isn't unusual, Carl says a lot of farmers with FSA loans are unable to make their complete payments at times because of a bad growing season or low prices.

 

The FSA usually works with those farmers if they can make a good case they'll be profitable the next year. Because they were just paying interest, the Wises debt grew from the original $300,000 plus to more than $400,000 by 2010. Eddie was gradually buying and breeding more hogs. Bond says there was reason for hope and his bosses approved his approach.

 

Carl Bond: They reviewed everything that I did on the Wises, I would send it up to Raleigh and they would go through it with a fine toothed comb. Then they would say, "These are some things we find, you get these things corrected", and then everything was good.

 

John B.: There were signs that higher ups in the North Carolina FSA were taking a harder look at the Wises and their loan. Bond says one day in the fall of 2010 his boss, the District Director, got a call from the state office in Raleigh asking to see the farm plan that Bond and the Wises were working on.

 

Carl Bond: After they reviewed it, they came back and said, "We don't think the number of hogs that we see on this balance sheet is correct." That's when the State Director said, "Okay, let's go and have a farm visit."

 

John B.: Just to make this clear, Bond was a 30 year veteran loan officer and manager. For some reason, his superiors asked to examine a farm plan that wasn't completed yet.

 

Carl Bond: That was unusual. I think they wasn't trusting my say so, they was trying to damage me.

 

John B.: Remember this is 2010, a decade after Pigford, the discrimination lawsuit that the government settled with black farmers. Even then, Bond says he often felt his work was questioned more than that of white officers. That scrutiny was compounded in the case of Eddie Wise.

 

Carl Bond: You've got a black loan officer assisting with a black farmer. They might think, "Hey, he's doing too much for this person." At the end of the day, I was doing everybody like that. I treated everybody the same.

 

John B.: When Eddie Wise heard that the draft plan was being questioned, he was suspicious and angry. He'd studied the manuals, he knew a farm plan wasn't supposed to be passed up the chain of command for review until the farmer had signed off on it. He wanted to know what was going on. Then Carl Bond called again.

 

Eddie Wise: He said, "Eddie, the State Director wants to do a farm visit." I said, 'Hell yes, bring his white ass out here. I'm going to get some answers today." They roll up in the driveway and everybody piles out and Carl starts introducing. I said, "Who in the hell carried my incomplete farm plan to the state office?"

 

Carl's supervisor backed up and said, "I did Mr. Wise." I say, "Why?" He said, "Because Mike Huskey told me to bring it."

 

John B.: Mike Huskey was the Farm Loan Chief for the whole state. Eddie and Carl believe Huskey arranged this visit after looking at the farm plan. Why? In their draft the Wises said they had 14 sows, breeding females. Remember, most of their herd froze to death in 1998 and the government hadn't loaned them anymore money since then.

 

Eddie says a dozen years later, Mike Huskey apparently didn't believe he could have that many sows. He sent Carl's supervisor to check and the State Director and Carl tagged along.

 

Eddie Wise: Carl said, "Eddie, how many sows do you have?" I said, "I don't know Carl, let's count them. There's nine in here and 118 pigs." We got to the second building and there's nine more sows. I said, "We're not through." We go to the first building and here's 10 more sows, so now that's 28 sows. On my farm plan I was only listing 14.

 

John B.: Eddie had just 14 the last time Bond visited the farm, so that's the number he put down in the draft plan. Since then Eddie had bought and raised 14 more.

 

Eddie Wise: When the director saw those hogs he started apologizing. He said, "Mr. Wise, I was told the wrong information."

 

John B.: Jim Davenport, the District Director didn't return my phone calls. The State Director at the time was Aaron Martin, an Obama appointee. He retired at the end of 2011. Martin tells me he remembers the visit to Eddie's place but doesn't remember anyone questioning the accuracy of the farm plan.

 

Aaron Martin: He had the hogs there, we saw the hogs. I do know, my sense was that I thought Carl was doing a good job. He was following the procedures like I wanted him to, we were not foreclosing on him at anytime.

 

John B.: After the FSA officials found everything in order on the farm, Carl Bond turned in the Wise's plan for 2011.

 

Eddie Wise: He completed my farm plan in January and submitted it. State record signed off on it and everything so everything was fine, we thought.

 

Al Letson: Everything wasn't fine. Eddie's ultimate dream for his farm would come apart.

 

Eddie Wise: That was the whole rest of my life. That's what I want, I want to pass my farm on to my son. I can't pass something on to him that the government's taken. It's kind of hard to do.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, John Biewen tracks down the people involved in Eddie's case to find out what went wrong. You're listening to Reveal.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Eddie and Dorothy Wise bought their small North Carolina hog farm in 1996 with a USDA loan. By 2011, 14 years later, they were deeper in debt than when they started.

 

They blamed part of their losses on what they call obstruction by their first loan officer who was white. Their second loan officer, Carl Bond, was an African American and he helped them out. When he retired and went back to work on his own farm, they got a new loan officer who was white.

 

John Biewen picks up the story.

 

John B.: A few months after Carl Bond's retirement, Eddie Wise called the Farm Service Agency to ask who his new loan officer would be. He was told Paula Nicholls. Nicholls has worked with the FSA since 1984.

 

Eddie Wise: We're coming up on time to redo the farm plan, so I go in and tell her that I'm here to get assistance in doing my farm plan. She looked at me and said, "We don't do that anymore."

 

John B.: Meaning we don't help you?

 

Eddie Wise: Right.

 

John B.: This reminded the Wises of the 1990s and their first loan officer who said no to them at every turn. Eddie did what he'd done back then, he went to see Carl Bond and ask for his help. Together they structured the plan much as they'd done for many years. They put in production numbers that showed a slight positive cash flow.

 

What happened next is revealed in a series of internal FSA documents. While I was working on this story, Eddie and Dorothy Wise requested their own file from the Farm Service Agency in North Carolina. The FSA made copies and gave the Wises a stack of paper several inches thick, including some documents they'd never seen.

 

I met up with Eddie at Carl Bond's farm and the three of us looked over the files. In this, there were these two documents, these two E-Dollars reports.

 

Eddie and Carl were surprised to find a printout showing that the farm plan they submitted in the spring of 2012 was put through the FSA's loan making computer program, it's called E-Dollars. Their loan was in Dorothy's name.

 

Eddie Wise: They ran the E-Dollars on 5/24 and it says that, "Certification and authorization, I hereby certify that Dorothy M Wise does meet the requirement of the FSA [inaudible 00:31:44] and is eligible for primary loan service and action."

 

John B.: That is the computer program approved the plan. The Wises say their loan officer Paula Nicholls never told them that. Instead, the same day that printout was done, the Wises had a meeting with Nicholls at her office.

 

She told them that they were being denied loan servicing, the flexible terms they'd had with Bond that allowed them to pay what they could at the end of the year. Now Nicholls told them they'd have to start paying $3,100 a month.

 

That would have taken the bulk of their total income, making it impossible to feed their hogs and pay their other bills. They got up and left.

 

Eddie Wise: I told my wife, I said, "Brown sugar, let's go." She said, "What's wrong?" I said, "I'll tell you when I get outside." When we got outside her office I said, "She's lying, she's violating the regulation. I'm not going to argue with her because all I'm going to do is get pissed off and get arrested."

 

John B.: Also in the file, there's another computer analysis.

 

Eddie Wise: On this form was dated 6/7/2012.

 

John B.: That's two weeks after the first printout and that meeting. The new report showed a different result.

 

Eddie Wise: Now it says, "Dorothy M Wise does not meet the requirement of the FSA [inaudible 00:33:05] and not eligible for primary [inaudible 00:33:06] action."

 

John B.: How did people in the FSA office get from an approved farm plan to one that got rejected? First a little background. Bond explains that a hog producers annual farm plan for an FSA loan amounts to a fairly simple calculation; this many sows will produce X number of piglets. They'll be fed, and slaughtered, and sold bringing in this many dollars against the estimated expenses.

 

Carl Bond: You have to show your documentation of what you was doing, how you come up with those figures.

 

John B.: The farmer's production history is key in deciding the numbers to plug in. The plan the Wises turned in said their sows would produce an average of 10 piglets. In fact Bond says, Eddie had a track record of producing more than that, almost 12 pigs per sow. They put down 10, the state average.

 

Carl Bond: Just so we could be on the safe side and wouldn't have to be questioned.

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:05]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Carl Bond: ... so we could be on the safe side and wouldn't have to be questioned.

 

John B.: The piece of paper we're looking at now may be the most telling of all. It's a photocopy of Bonds' handwritten calculations that the Wises turned in with their farm plan.

 

Carl Bond: My calculation was he would produce 640 pigs, I would say, give or take. He may lose 110 of them, so he would have 530 pigs to send the market.

 

John B.: Bond points out that someone made additions on the page where he'd written that the Wises' sows would produce 10 piglets per litter.

 

So handwritten under your 10-

 

Carl Bond: Is a eight.

 

John B.: ... is somebody who's written-

 

Carl Bond: Yes.

 

John B.: Lowering the number of pigs per litter from 10 to eight cut Eddie's production by more than 100 piglets for the year, thus the shortfall in projected income. Stephen Carpenter of the Farmers' Legal Action Group says lowering a farmer's production numbers is a violation of USDA rules.

 

Stephen C.: If somebody has historically had 12 1/2 pigs per sow per year, that's what should be used in the cash flow.

 

John B.: Carl Bond says Paula Nicholls also violated procedures by simply replacing the Wises' version of their plan with her own and not sitting down with them to explain it.

 

Carl Bond: It's in procedure that once you make a change, it is okay to put it in the file but you have to meet with the borrower to explain to explain to the borrower, okay, customer that, okay, I did my business plan and it's different from yours. This is what I did. This is what I saw. Can we come together to an agreement on my plan or can we put together a medium that you'd be happy with, I can be happy with it, but that never happened.

 

John B.: Paula Nicholls is now the FSA's farm loan chief for North Carolina. I reached her at her office in Raleigh. She said she couldn't comment because of the Wises' legal action against the agency.

 

Carl Bond says it's very unlikely that Paula Nicholls made the decision all by herself to get tougher on the Wises. He says any loan officer making such an important decision to put a farmer on the road to foreclosure would talk to the boss first.

 

Evidently it must have came from the state office and at that time the chief was Mike Huskie. Mike Huskie, the same man who Eddie Wise believes instigated that surprise farm visit a year and a half earlier to see if Eddie and Carl were telling the truth on their farm plan. Huskie was Paula Nicholls' direct supervisor at the time.

 

Aaron Martin: Mike was just very strict about debt.

 

John B.: That's Aaron Martin, the former FSA state director and Mike Huskie's boss until Martin retired at the end of 2011. Martin says he and Huskie had different philosophies. Martin appreciated loan officers like Carl Bond, he says, who used their discretion to help the farmer whenever possible. He says Huskie was less forgiving.

 

Aaron Martin: And I think he felt like he was serving the government well in protecting the government's interest in here's this debt and it must be repaid.

 

John B.: Martin says he doesn't believe Huskie treated farmers differently based on their race. He was strict with everyone, but then Martin tells a story about a time when he found Huskie's judgment especially troubling. It was around 2011, he says. A farm couple discovered that their FSA loan officer had failed to file documents at the county office for a conservation easement. It was the loan officer's responsibility and his failure to follow through was going to cost the farm couple thousands of dollars.

 

Aaron Martin: Mike told me that there was nothing anybody could do, that if they wanted to contest it, they would have to hire a lawyer. Well, I just was not having any of that. It was not their fault. It was the agency's fault.

 

John B.: Martin says he overruled Huskie and the FSA covered the cost of its mistake. He says Huskie would have left it to the farmers to solve the problem.

 

Aaron Martin: I just couldn't believe it.

 

John B.: Only after hearing the whole story, it occurred to me to ask were those farmers white or black?

 

Aaron Martin: They were minority farmers, African Americans.

 

John B.: Mike Huskie retired at the beginning of 2017. I went to see him at his home on the rural outskirts of Raleigh.

 

Hi, is this Mr Huskie?

 

Mike Huskie: Yes.

 

John B.: I'm sorry to bother you at home, but I couldn't find a phone number for you. My name's John Biewen. I'm a reporter and-

 

Mike Huskie: I'm not talking to you.

 

John B.: Through a closed glass door, he says, "I'm not talking to you."

 

I'm working on a story about Eddie and-

 

Mike Huskie: ... what you're working on.

 

John B.: Okay.

 

Mike Huskie: I'm not talking to you.

 

John B.: Huskie says he knows what I'm working on.

 

I would be remiss if I didn't give you a chance to respond.

 

Mike Huskie: I can't talk to you about that case.

 

John B.: Why not?

 

Mike Huskie: I can't.

 

John B.: "I can't," he said

 

In a brief written statement, the only response to our questions about the Wise case, the USDA said it restructured the Wises' debt four times between 1998 and 2010. That's during the time Carl Bond was managing the loan. The statement says the Wises paid a total of only $8,000 over the life of their loan and owed 591,000 when their farm was seized. Some of that debt was interest that accrued after the Wises stopped making payments in 2011.

 

When you're working with a farmer, when do you decide? When do you know? All right, it's time to-

 

Carl Bond: To quit?

 

John B.: Yeah. To pull the plug. We can't continue to exceed the terms, et cetera.

 

Carl Bond concedes that by 2012, after he'd retired, it may have been reasonable for FSA officials to decide that Eddie and Dorothy Wise had run out of time.

 

Carl Bond: Normally when I had a farmer that got to the end of his ropes, we worked out everything and we said, "Okay, this is the last time we can do an servicing action on you. You're getting further and further in debt. What you want to do? You can go deeper in debt or you can cut your losses now and get out." I let the farmer make the decision theirself.

 

John B.: Paula Nicholls simply told the Wises they would have to start paying much more on their loan. They refused and defaulted. At that point, Bond says the rules governing USDA loans say Nicholls should have offered the Wises what's known as homestead protection.

 

Carl Bond: They were supposed to give him the opportunity to keep his house and have 10 acres of land around his house for his sake, which was to have been the pond in front of his land and about five acres behind the house where he could have a garden there, but he was never offered that.

 

John B.: And he's supposed to be offered that?

 

Carl Bond: Yeah, he's supposed to be offered that.

 

John B.: Instead, the government took all the land in January 2016.

 

If the USDA discriminated against the Wises, is it an isolated instance or part of a continuing problem? Not shockingly, it depends on who you ask.

 

Gary Grant: Okay. We're ready. Good morning. My name is Gary Grant and I'm president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association and we're here today-

 

John B.: In April 2016, Gary Grant held a press conference in front of the Farm Service Agency offices in Raleigh to call attention to the eviction of the Wises.

 

Gary Grant: Deterioration of-

 

John B.: Just a few reporters attended. Grant and other black farmer advocates say, even though the USDA admitted widespread discrimination when it settled the Pigford lawsuit in 1999, it did not hold any employees accountable.

 

Gary Grant: I never have understood why people did not become outraged when the government settled with black farmers in 1999 and not one agent lost a job. Actually, they got promoted, not one federal employee.

 

John B.: We asked the USDA if anyone was ever fired after the findings in the Pigford settlement. They didn't answer that question or any other that we put to them. So I went to the guy who was at the top during much of this time. I set up an interview with Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture during President Obama's two terms. He said he didn't know about the Wise case and couldn't comment on it directly, but he says if Paula Nicholls or someone else in the FSA office manipulated Eddie Wise's production numbers, that's a violation of agency rules.

 

Tom Vilsack: If there was no justification and no reason to change the number from 10 to eight, that certainly is something that sounds unusual and certainly does something that wouldn't, in my view, wouldn't pass the smell test if that's in fact what happened.

 

John B.: Vilsack told me because of the department's history of discrimination, he ordered training at county offices and tightened procedures, making sure farmers who came in asking for services were given a receipt so they could prove they'd asked for help when filing complaints. And Vilsack received a monthly report from the department's Office of Civil Rights.

 

Tom Vilsack: And what I can tell you is that we saw a substantial reduction in the number of program complaints. These would be people coming in and saying that they weren't being treated fairly. So, we did see progress. That is not to say that there can't be a circumstance or situation where, for whatever reason, something goes awry because you're dealing with 90,000 employees, 90 to 100,000 employees.

 

John B.: Hello, Mr. Wise.

 

Eddie's son is also named Edward Wise, but the family calls him Ronnie. I went to see him at his home in a quiet semi-rural part of Prince George's County, Maryland. Ronnie is a career police officer in Washington, D.C. He's powerfully built like his father and shares his dad's love of growing things.

 

Ronnie Wise: The garden is behind the shed, and then what I have in pots I have in front, but the raised beds, we do back behind the shed. Being back here is like being back as close to North Carolina as I could get without being in North Carolina and-

 

John B.: Ronnie recently turned 50, an age that would have allowed him to retire with full benefits.

 

Ronnie Wise: My goal was at 50 this year was to start heading back back home to assist my father with the farm because he always talked about being able to pass down something because his parents never gave him anything. There was nothing to pass on. See, this was my heart's desire. Like I said, I've been trying to get back to North Carolina. It looks like I'm going back this year, either, because at this point there's nothing to go back to.

 

Eddie Wise: That was the whole thrust of my life. That's what I worked for was to pass mine on to my son. That was a done deal, you know, but I can't pass something on to him that the government has taken, kind of hard to do. Hard to even think about.

 

John B.: Eddie is now at his sister's house in Williamston, the little town he grew up in in eastern North Carolina. The Wises didn't want to impose on family after getting evicted, so they stayed in that little motel for eight months until finally Eddie's relatives insisted.

 

Eddie Wise: My sister and my brother, in September, evicted me from the hotel I was in.

 

John B.: Eddie and I go to see Dorothy.

 

Eddie Wise: Welcome to the Brian Center.

 

John B.: She's at a Rehab Center in the nearby town of Windsor.

 

Eddie Wise: Hey, we got a sign.

 

John B.: Last fall, her diabetes got worse. Doctors had to amputate both of her legs above the knees.

 

Eddie Wise: Yo, little girl, are you sleeping in again?

 

John B.: Dorothy's lying on her bed. Her eyes stay closed most of the time, but she does respond to Eddie. He visits almost every day and brings oatmeal raisin cookies and a special drink for diabetics.

 

Eddie Wise: You haven't had anything?

 

Dorothy Wise: Mm-hmm (negative).

 

Eddie Wise: so you want me to kick it off with a cookie?

 

Dorothy Wise: Oh.

 

Eddie Wise: Huh?

 

It's been a lot that has gone on with us, a lot has happened to us. We survey the situation and put things in place to create some happiness for us. You know, my thing is if I ain't doing something to make her happy, my day is not complete. If I miss a day or so and show up, she'll say, "Eddie, I'm so glad you here." She'll grab me by the hand, and I'll say, "I'm here, baby." When she hear my voice, she know it's me. Yeah, it makes my day.

 

You want a sip? You want it?

 

Dorothy Wise: Yeah.

 

Eddie Wise: Okay, coming at you.

 

Al Letson: We first aired Dorothy and Eddie Wises' story in July 2017. Dorothy died the following September of complications from diabetes.

 

Every case is different and complicated, but this nation's economy was built largely on black farm labor, in bondage for hundreds of years. After the Civil War, freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule so they could be self sufficient as farmers, but that promise was broken. What followed was a century of sharecropping and tenant farming. To this day, black farmers are still waiting for their 40 acres and a mule.

 

Our show was produced by John Biewen of the podcast Scene on Radio. That's S-C-E-N-E on Radio from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The editor was Deb George. We had production help from Phoebe Petrovic.

 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy aka Jim Briggs and Fernando, My Man Yo, Arruda. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:05]