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Jul 1, 2017

Losing ground

Co-produced with PRX Logo

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 a 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 federal 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 one black farm couple who say the USDA treated them unfairly because of their 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 and Mary and Steven Swig.

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 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

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's have to go into the world.

 

Eddie Wise: When I turned 18, I signed up to go in the Army.

 

[00:00:30]

Al Letson:

 

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 Letson: 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 gonna be owning that bad boy. I'm not working on no farm for nobody else."

 

Al Letson: Years later, Eddie would get his own farm. But he says that over a 25-year period, the U.S. Agriculture Department discriminated against him and his wife Dorothy because of their race. And finally, drove them off their land.

 

[00:01:00] John Biewan of the podcast Seen on Radio has been following their story for years and investigates what happened.

 

John Biewen: So, what's the day today?

 

Eddie Wise: Today is the ... what?

 

John Biewen: I think it's the 20th.

 

Eddie Wise: Today is January 20th, Wednesday.

 

John Biewen: January 20, 2016. 8:40 AM. I've just arrived at Eddie Wise's farm. It's a small 106-acre hog operation on rolling land near Rocky Mount, 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 guests.

 

[00:02:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

Let's walk on up this way.

 

John Biewen: And 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 U.S. Marshals with a few county deputies as backup. Some of the Marshals carry semi-automatic rifles.

 

Eddie Wise: Come on down.

 

Dep. Coney: How you doing this morning, sir?

 

Eddie Wise: My dogs don't bite.

 

Dep. Coney: Sir?

 

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

 

John Biewen: The U.S. Marshal, the leader of the operation, approaches Eddie and presents the papers.

 

[00:02:30]

Dep. Coney:

 

I'm Deputy Coney with the Marshal's Service. You obviously know what's going on. Okay. The judge-

 

Eddie Wise: I know you all were coming.

 

Dep. Coney: Yes, sir. There's a foreclosure judgment that's been issued against you and a seizure orderment. So, we're gonna have to remove you from your residence this morning and there's certain items gonna be taken.

 

Eddie Wise: Well, my wife is sick.

 

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

 

[00:03:00]

John Biewen:

 

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.

 

Dep. Coney: 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.

 

Dep. Coney: I understand that.

 

John Biewen: Eddie was told the Marshals would be coming to seize his farm equipment because he hadn't made payments of his government loan. But he says he didn't know he and Dorothy would be evicted today.

 

[00:03:30]

Eddie Wise:

 

So I'm supposed to take my wife and just walk off.

 

Dep. Coney: 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.

 

Dep. Coney: I understand that. It's just a question we have to ask.

 

Eddie Wise: Yes.

 

Dep. Coney: Okay.

 

Eddie Wise: I'm a retired Green Beret.

 

Dep. Coney: I understand that as well, sir. And I appreciate your service. Can we walk in with you or walk up there with you? We just want to make sure that everything's fine. I'll let you get your wife, we're not gonna interfere with you getting your wife in any means. Okay? But we do need to walk in there with you.

 

[00:04:00]

John Biewen:

 

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.

 

Dep. Coney: But until that time, we have to go forward, Mr. Wise.

 

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

 

John Biewen: The armed Marshals follow Eddie into his mobile home.

 

Dep. Coney: After you, sir. It's your residence.

 

[00:04:30]

John Biewen:

 

Inside, the Marshals secure Eddie's weapons.

 

Speaker 5: 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 5: Okay, can we get that one too?

 

John Biewen: 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: [inaudible 00:05:04].

 

[00:05:00]

Dorothy Wise:

 

Yeah?

 

Eddie Wise: You sounding okay. It's gonna be all right, babe. We just gonna have to figure out where we gonna stay and what we gonna do.

 

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

 

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

 

[00:05:30]

John Biewen:

 

Yeah.

 

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

 

John Biewen: 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. There goes the stock trailer.

 

[00:06:00]

John Biewen:

 

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 Wise: Eddie? Eddie?

 

[00:06:30]

John Biewen:

 

That's Dorothy, in the farmyard.

 

Eddie Wise: Yes.

 

John Biewen: Where are you?

 

Eddie Wise: Here in the [inaudible 00:06:35] house.

 

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

 

Eddie Wise: Be wise?

 

Dorothy Wise: [inaudible 00:06:42]

 

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

 

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

 

[00:07:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

The Army sent me to Howard University to teach. I was teaching in the military science department. Air mobile operations, rappelling, jumping, air assaults. She was a grant manager for the college of medicine. She said, "The spirit of the Lord told me that the man that come in my life will bring everything." She said, "I've wanted a farm all my life." So, I told her, I said, "You're kidding me."

 

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

 

Eddie Wise: And I said, "Don't let this three-piece suit fool you. I'm on my way home to North Carolina to find a farm right now." I said, "I'm going to Wilson, North Carolina to pick blueberries this weekend."

 

[00:07:30]

Dorothy Wise:

 

So I said, "Okay."

 

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

 

Dorothy Wise: 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 then. And we were married, what? 16 years.

 

Dorothy Wise: 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. And you will help them, no matter what you have to do.

 

[00:08:00]

John Biewen:

 

But in 2016, the U.S. government would take the Wise's farm and run them off.

 

[00:08:30]

Al Letson:

 

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, one loan officer would loan money to people that he know. They say, "We need some money." And then, when we as blacks went in to ask, they would say, "Well, all the money is gone."

 

Al Letson: Reported John Biewen picks up their story when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

[00:09:00] From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

A century ago, black families owned about 15% of American farmland. Today, only 1% of farm families are African-American. In a report 20 years ago, the U.S. Agricultural Department called itself "a contributing factor in the dramatic decline of black farmers." A landmark class action lawsuit filed by black farmers against the USDA, known as the Pigford case, named after a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford, was settled in 1999.

 

[00:09:30]

Speaker 7:

 

A court found the farmers had been systematically denied aid solely because they were black. Loans, grants, and subsidies that white farmers received.

 

Al Letson: As a result, the government paid black farmers more than $2 billion. One payout at the end of the nineties

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: More than $2 billion. One payout at the end of the nineties 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 Letson: The question is: did the USDA fix the problem? Eddie and Dorothy Wise say government officials discriminated against them before and after the black farmers' settlement. So, back to their story. Here's John Biewen.

 

[00:10:30]

John Biewen:

 

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 U.S. Agriculture Department and its lending arm, then called the Farmer's Home Administration or FHA.

 

Eddie Wise: The good old boy net had a unwritten system. If you walked in the 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 on. They said they didn't have applications. If you got the application, they wouldn't tell you how to fill it out. And then, when you finally got it filled out and turned it in to them, then they hit you, "Oops, we're out of money."

 

[00:11:00]

John Biewen:

 

The Wises say all those things and more happened to them. The loan officer in their 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, Sidney Long, is now retired. I reached him on the phone.

 

[00:11:30] "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 Wises case because Dorothy and Eddie have a lawsuit pending against the department. But there's someone else who was in a position to know about the Wises relationship with the USDA. Carl Bond lives on his family's 140-acre farm on the edge of Windsor, North Carolina.

 

[00:12:00]

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 Biewen: Bond retired in 2011 after a 32-year 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.

 

[00:12:30]

Carl Bond:

 

He came to my office. He said, "Would you assist me with this application?" I said, "Well, yes." I said, "But didn't you ask the loan officer that you got it from?" He said, "Yes, we asked him and he said, 'We ... you are a retired officer from the United States Army. Y'all should be able to do it.'"

 

[00:13:00]

John Biewen:

 

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 need assistance, to help them fill out the forms.

 

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

 

Carl Bond: Sidney came from the good old boys, back in the day. White loan officers would loan money to people they know that say, "We need some money." And when we as blacks went in to ask, they would say, "Well, all the money's gone."

 

[00:13:30]

John Biewen:

 

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

 

Steven Carpente: My name is Steven Carpenter. I'm a lawyer at Farmer's Legal Action Group, a non-profit law firm in Minnesota that works on behalf of family farmers.

 

[00:14:00]

John Biewen:

 

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 Carpente: USDA officials should provide information about all services to all people who ask, that they are to explain all types of programs and perhaps, most importantly, in the middle nineties, their own regulations says that USDA officials will give whatever assistance as necessary to complete the application.

 

[00:14:30]

John Biewen:

 

So the Wises filled out the form with help from Carl Bond but now their loan officer, Sidney 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 Sidney Long. The state director intervened and approved the Wises' purchase of the land.

 

[00:15:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

It took us five years to get it. We prevailed, I told my wife, I said, "When God is blessing you, man can't stop you."

 

John Biewen: But the Wises troubles with the USDA were far from over. They 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 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.

 

[00:15:30] But, Eddie says Sidney Long, the loan officer, delayed the release of the Wises' operating loan.

 

[00:16:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

He drug the loan process out for seven damn months.

 

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

 

Eddie Wise: So, by the time we got ready to bring them home in September, over half of them was already pregnant. And I had nothing but a 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.

 

[00:16:30]

John Biewen:

 

Winter nights in North Carolina often dip below freezing.

 

Eddie Wise: 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 freeze to death.

 

John Biewen: For the Wises, the loss of almost their entire herd was catastrophic. It put them in a hole they never dug out of. Why the delay in releasing their operating loan? They say Sidney Long told them there was no money in the loan fund. Carl Bond, the African-American loan officer who'd helped the Wises fill out their application finds that puzzling.

 

[00:17:00]

Carl Bond:

 

Their loan would have fell under the socially disadvantaged loan fund so-

 

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

 

Carl Bond: There was plenty of socially disadvantaged money available in that time. All the loans I had for my socially disadvantaged customers, went in and got funded.

 

[00:17:30]

John Biewen:

 

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 Sidney Long.

 

[00:18:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

So he said, "Call Mount County and tell Carl Bonds I want him here and his supervisor." He said, "By the way, Mr. Wise, Carl Bonds is black." I said, "Good." So, Carl came.

 

[00:18:30]

John Biewen:

 

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 and worse as his time went on. So, that's why they moved him to me. And I had to then service the loan.

 

[00:19:00]

John Biewen:

 

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

 

[00:19:30]

Eddie Wise:

 

Once they're slaughtered, they'll be processed into pork chop sizes, real steak bone, pigtails, 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.

 

[00:20:00]

John Biewen:

 

But the hog operation wasn't bringing in a lot of money.

 

Eddie Wise: My

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: But the hog operation wasn't bringing in a lot of money.

 

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

 

Speaker 1: That income came from Eddie's army pension, Dorothy's retirement from Howard University, and their two social security checks.

 

Eddie: And the $55,000 a year, non-farm income, help us stay on the farm. Because we're pulling down roughly about, 15, 16 thousand dollars a year on the farm. So you can't run a hog operation like that. It's tight.

 

[00:20:30]

Speaker 1:

 

But 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 on to his son.

 

In the farm yard, Eddie calls his three dogs. He's had them since they were puppies.

 

Eddie: [inaudible 00:20:59] Grub time. They're a cross between St Bernard and Labs. Runt was the smallest one. That's the solid brown. [Gid 00:21:09] is the male. Spot is his sister. They're sisters and brothers. [inaudible 00:21:19] Common Gid. Common.

 

[00:21:00]

Speaker 1:

 

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, were they were given to three different families.

 

[00:21:30] You may be wondering, couldn't the Wise's 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. But Eddie says the loan officer's obstruction's caused his farm a lot more than that.

 

[00:22:00]

Eddie:

 

We weren't going to take $50,000. Because $50,000 was no money.

 

Speaker 1: Another option under Pigford, allowed farmers to sue for more money if they could prove discrimination more directly. But for that, the Wises would have had to hire a lawyer and show that their local FSA office had treated White farmers better.

 

Eddie: How are you going to get the names of those other White farmers?

 

[00:22:30]

Speaker 1:

 

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

 

Speaker 1: 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.

 

[00:23:00] 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 Wise's debt grew from the original $300,000 plus, to more than $400,000 by 2010. But Eddie was gradually buying and breeding more hogs. Bond says there was reason for hope. And his bosses approved his approach.

 

[00:23:30]

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-tooth comb. And then they would say, "These are some things we find, you get these things corrected." Then everything was good.

 

Speaker 1: But 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.

 

[00:24:00]

Carl Bond:

 

After reviewing, they came back and said, "We don't think the number of hogs that we see on this balance sheet is correct." So, that's when the state directly said, "Okay, let's go ahead and have a farm visit."

 

Speaker 1: 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.

 

[00:24:30]

Carl Bond:

 

That was unusual. I think they wasn't trusting my say-so. They were trying to damage me.

 

Speaker 1: Remember, this is 2010. A decade after Pigford, the discrimination lawsuit that the government settled with Black farmers. But even then, Bond says he often felt his work was questioned more than that of White officers. And that scrutiny was compounded in the case of Eddie Wise.

 

[00:25:00]

Carl Bond:

 

You got a Black loan officer, assisting with a Black farmer. They may think, "Hey, he's doing too much for this person," but at the end of the day, I was doing everybody like that. I treat everybody the same.

 

Speaker 1: 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.

 

[00:25:30]

Eddie:

 

He said, "Eddie, the state director wants to do a farm visit." I said, "Hell yeah! Bring his White ass out here. I'm going to get some answers today." And so, they roll up in the driveway, and everybody piles out, and Carl starts introducing. I said, "Who in the hell, curved my incomplete farm plan to the state office?" So Carl's supervisor backed up, he said, "I did, Mr Wise." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because Mike Huskie told me to bring it."

 

Speaker 1: Mike Huskie was the farm loan chief for the whole state. Eddie and Carl believe Huskie arranged this visit, after looking at the farm plan. Why? In their draft, the Wises said they had 14 sows, breading females. Remember, most of their herd froze to death in 1998 and the government hadn't loaned them any more money, since then.

 

[00:26:00] So Eddie says a dozen years later, Mike Huskie 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.

 

[00:26:30]

Eddie:

 

So Carl said, "Eddie, how many sows do you have?" I said, "I don't know, Carl. Let's count them. There's 9 in here and 118 pigs." So we go 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 there's 28 sows. On my farm plan, I was only listing 14.

 

[00:27:00]

Speaker 1:

 

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

 

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

 

Speaker 1: Tim 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.

 

[00:27:30] 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 hogs there, we saw the hogs. But 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, anytime.

 

Speaker 1: After the FSA officials found everything in order on the farm, Carl Bond turned in the Wise's plan for 2011.

 

[00:28:00]

Eddie:

 

He completed my farm plan in January and submitted it. State record signed off on it, and everything. So everything was fine. We thought.

 

Speaker 1: But, everything wasn't fine. And Eddie's ultimate dream for his farm, would come apart.

 

Eddie: That was the whole thrust in my life right here. That's what I worked [inaudible 00:28:29] farm on to my son. But I can't pass something on to him that the government has taken. It's kind of hard to do.

 

Speaker 1: When we come back, John [Biewen 00:28:36]tracks down the people involved in Eddie's case, to find out, what went wrong? You're listening to Reveal.

 

[00:29:00] From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Eddie and Dorothy Wise brought 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 blame part of their loses on what they call obstruction, by their first loan officer, who was White.

 

The second loan officer, Carl Bond, was an African-American, and he helped them out. But, when he retired, and went back to work on his own farm, they got a new loan officer, who was White.

 

[00:29:30] John Bewin, picks up the story.

 

Speaker 5: 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: 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

 

  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Eddie Wise: ... and tell her that I'm here to get assistance in doing my farm planning. So she looked at me and said, "We don't do that anymore."

 

John Bewin: Meaning we don't help you?

 

Eddie Wise: Right.

 

John Bewin: His reminded the Wises of the 1990s and their first loan office who said, "No," to them at every turn. Eddie did what he done back then. He went to see Carl Bond and asked 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.

 

[00:30:30] What happened next is revealed in a series of internal FSA documents.

 

While I was working on this story over the past year, 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.

 

[00:31:00] I met up with Eddie at Carl Bond's farm. And the three of us looked over the files.

 

There were these two documents right? These two E-dollars reports.

 

Carl Bond: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

John Bewin: 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.

 

Carl Bond: Okay then 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 regulation and is eligible for primary loan service and action."

 

[00:31:30]

John Bewin:

 

That is the computer program approved the plan. But the Wises say their loan officer, Paula Nichols, never told them that. Instead, the same day that printout was done, the Wises had a meeting with Nichols at her office. She told them they were being 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 Nichols 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.

 

[00:32:00]

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." So when we got outside her office, I said, "She's lying. She's violating the regulation. And I'm not going to argue with her because all I'm going to do is get pissed off and get arrested."

 

[00:32:30]

John Bewin:

 

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

 

Carl Bond: Okay on this form, was dated 6/7/2012.

 

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

 

Carl Bond: The narrative says, "Dorothy M. Wise does not meet the requirement of the FSA regulation and not eligible for primary [inaudible 00:33:08] action."

 

[00:33:00]

John Bewin:

 

So 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 producer's annual farm plan for an FSA loan amounts to a fairly simple calculation. This many sows will product X number of piglets. They'll be fed and slaughtered and sold, bringing in this many dollars, against the estimated expenses.

 

[00:33:30]

Carl Bond:

 

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

 

John Bewin: 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. But they put down 10, the state average.

 

[00:34:00]

Carl Bond:

 

Just so we could be on the safe side and wouldn't have to be coerced.

 

John Bewin: The piece of paper we're looking at now may be the most telling of all. It's a photocopy of Bond's 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 to market.

 

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

 

[00:34:30] So handwritten under your 10-

 

Carl Bond: ... is the 8.

 

John Bewin: ... somebody's written 8.

 

Carl Bond: Yes.

 

John Bewin: Lowering the number of pigs from 10 to 8, 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.

 

[00:35:00]

Stephen C:

 

If somebody has historically had 12 and half pigs per sow, per year, that's what should be used in a cashflow.

 

John Bewin: Carl Bond says Paula Nichols 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 procedures that once you make a change, it's okay to put in the file, but you have to meet with the borrower to explain [inaudible 00:35:30] explain to the borrower that, "Okay, [inaudible 00:35:32] I did my business plan and it was different than 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'll be happy with? I can be happy with?" But that never happened.

 

[00:35:30]

John Bewin:

 

Paula Nichols 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.

 

[00:36:00] Carl Bond says it very unlikely that Paula Nichols 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."

 

Carl Bond: Evidently, it must have come from the State office and at that time, the Chief was Mike Huskey.

 

John Bewin: Mike Huskey. 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. Huskey was Paula Nichol's direct supervisor at the time.

 

[00:36:30]

Aaron Martin:

 

Mike was just very strict about debt.

 

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

 

[00:37:00]

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 Bewin: Martin says he doesn't believe Huskey treated farmers differently based on their race. He was strict with everyone. But then Martin tells a story about a time when he found Huskey'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.

 

[00:37:30]

Aaron Martin:

 

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

 

[00:38:00]

John Bewin:

 

Martin says he overruled Huskey and the FSA covered the cost of its mistake. He says, "Huskey would have left it to the farmers to solve the problem."

 

Aaron Martin: I just couldn't believe it.

 

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

 

[00:38:30] Hi, is this Mr. Huskey?

 

Mike Huskey: Yes.

 

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

 

Mike Huskey: I'm not talking to you.

 

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

 

I'm working on a story about Eddie-

 

Mike Huskey: I know what you're working on.

 

John Bewin: Okay.

 

Mike Huskey: I'm not talking to you.

 

[00:39:00]

John Bewin:

 

Huskey says he knows what I'm working on.

 

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

 

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

 

John Bewin: Why not?

 

Mike Huskey: I can't.

 

John Bewin: "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 $8000 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.

 

[00:39:30]

Stephen C:

 

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

 

John Bewin: ... to quit?

 

Stephen C: Yeah, to pull the plug. We can't, we can't continue ...

 

John Bewin: Carl Bond concedes that by 2012 after he'd retired-

 

  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:50:47]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

John Biewen: 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.

 

Bonn: 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 a service and 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 like the farmer to make the decision themself.

 

John Biewen: Paula Nichols simply told the Wises they would have to start paying much more on their loan. They refused, and defaulted. At that point, [Bonn 00:40:51] says, the rules governing USDA loans say Nichols should have offered the Wises what's known as Homestead Protection.

 

[00:40:30]

Bonn:

 

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 been in the pond in front of his land about five acres behind the house, where he could have a garden at, but he was never offered that.

 

[00:41:00]

Speaker 3:

 

And he's supposed to be offered that?

 

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

 

John Biewen: 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 [crosstalk 00:41:50]

 

[00:41:30]

John Biewen:

 

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. 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.

 

[00:42:00]

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.

 

[00:42:30]

John Biewen:

 

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 out 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 Nichols or someone else in the FSA office manipulated Eddie Wise's production numbers, that's a violation of agency rules.

 

[00:43:00]

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 it is something that wouldn't, in my view, wouldn't pass the smell test if that's in fact what happened.

 

John Biewen: 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.

 

[00:43:30]

Tom Vilsack:

 

And what I can tell you is that we saw 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, 90,000 to 100,000 employees.

 

[00:44:00]

Speaker 6:

 

Hello, Mr. Wise.

 

John Biewen: 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 DC. He's powerfully built like his father, and shares his dad's love of growing things.

 

[00:44:30]

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 can get without being in North Carolina.

 

John Biewen: 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 home to assist my father with the farm. He always talked about being able to pass down something, because his parent's never gave him anything, there was nothing to pass on. So this was my heart's desire. Like I said, I've been trying to get back to North Carolina, and it looks like I'm not going back this year either, 'cause at this point, there's nothing to go back to.

 

[00:45:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

That was the whole thrust of my livelihood, that's why I worked, I want to pass the farm on to my son. That was a done deal, but I can't pass something on to him that the government has taken. Kinda hard to do. Hard to even think about.

 

[00:45:30]

John Biewen:

 

Eddie is now at his sister's house in Williamstown, 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.

 

[00:46:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

My sister and my brother in September evicted me from the hotel I was in.

 

John Biewen: Eddie and I go to see Dorothy.

 

Speaker 9: Welcome to the Brian Center.

 

John Biewen: She's at a rehab center in the nearby town of Windsor. Last fall, her diabetes got worse, and doctors had to amputate both of her legs above the knees.

 

[00:46:30]

Eddie Wise:

 

Yo, little girl. Are you sleeping in again?

 

John Biewen: 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.

 

[00:47:00]

Eddie Wise:

 

You haven't had anything?

 

Dorothy Wise: Uh-uh (negative).

 

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

 

Dorothy Wise: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Eddie Wise: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There's been a lot that has gone on with us, a lot has happened to us. When we survey the situation, and put things in place to create some happiness for us, then my thing is if I ain't doing something to make her happy, then my day is not complete. If I miss a day or so, and show up, she say, "I'm so glad you're here." She grab me by the hand. And I say, "I'm here baby," and when she hears my voice, she know it's me, that makes my day.

 

[00:47:30] Want to sit up? You want it?

 

Dorothy Wise: Yeah.

 

Eddie Wise: Okay, coming at you.

 

[00:48:00]

Al Letson:

 

John Biewen brought us the Wises' story. 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 share-cropping and tenant farming. To this day, black farmers are still waiting for their 40 acres and a mule.

 

[00:48:30] Our show was edited by Deb George, and produced by John Biewen for podcast Scene on Radio, that's S-C-E-N-E on Radio. From the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. And in podcasts that Al thinks you should listen to, you gotta check out Bite. It's a podcast from Mother Jones for people who think hard about their food and Lord knows I think hard about my food. I love to eat, I love trying new foods and Bite is right up my alley. You'll hear all these fascinating backstories about why coffee has gotten so fancy, or learn a simple trick to transform everything you eat. Discover the chef trying to spread the word about Native American cuisine. They've got amazing guests too, ranging from Michael Paulin to one of my favorite writers, Lindy West. Lindy is the bomb. Bite uncovers surprising stories behind what ends up on your plate, so check them out. You can subscribe to Bite on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man J. Briggsy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire "C-note" Mullen. They had help from Catherine Raymondo. Original music and mixing this week by [inaudible 00:49:59]. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle's our editor-in-chief. Susanne Reber's our executive editor, and 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 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.

 

[00:50:00] 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.

 

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