HOLDENVILLE, Okla. (KFOR) – George Roberts is one of the only Black farmers left in Oklahoma.
“We the fly in the buttermilk,” he said of the expansive Circle R Ranch in Holdenville.
Born into a legacy of farm life, Roberts said his family settled in Holdenville, on the promise of ‘forty acres and a mule’, a Reconstruction era policy aimed at providing freed Black slaves restitution, following the Civil War.
More than three generations later, Roberts tells KFOR it’s grueling work to turn a profit for the Circle R Ranch.
“Financing is the key to agriculture and [though] we’ve tried to do different options with the government and different agencies it’s tough,” he said.
Roberts retired from another career to work for the farming operation full time.
“Simple reason is you don’t have [anything] to work with,” he added.
Many modern-day farmers rely on federal grants to stay afloat, utilizing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants and loans to land purchases , improvements or repairs, equipment, livestock and farm supplies. purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed, and supplies.
But for years, those benefits have been difficult for Black farmers to take part in.
“A lot of people say it’s easy and you get what you want…you don’t,” said Roberts.
“The name of the game is to have you put it up, then you can’t make it and they take it.”
Roberts is one of thousands of Black farmers denied federal agriculture assistance for decades by the USDA.
He was a plaintiff in a well-known class action lawsuit – Pigford v. Glickman – against the agency claiming that the USDA had racially discriminated against Black farmers in its handling of farm loans and assistance from 1981 to 1996 and failed to investigate the claims of racism.
The farmers won – but many missed out on the billion-dollar settlement because of a confusing application process, strict deadlines and distrust.
“”For you not to get the type of help that you think you should be getting it hurts,” Roberts said.
Moreover, many late claims were never paid out to Black farmers who deserved those dollars.
In 2010, Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for what is called “Pigford II,” a second settlement of the case.
Roberts said he missed out on a payout in that lawsuit due to a technicality: the timeline for his claim did not meet criteria for the first lawsuit.
“I was supposed to get debt relief and I didn’t get it. Debt relief would have helped out. You wouldn’t have had to face the music every year trying to pay a loan,” he said.
“I’m a godly person. I’m going to leave it up to the man upstairs to make it right.”
In another effort, the Inflation Reduction Act, enacted in 2022, set aside funds for farmers, ranchers or other agricultural producers who experienced disadvantages and discrimination by the USDA prior to January 1, 2021.
Applications for the Discrimination Financial Assistance program opened up in July.
In a recent interview with KFOR, Willard Tillman of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project confirmed paperwork is still a barrier, especially for aging farmers.
“If the application [prior] processes [were] basically done in a manner where fairness was there… just think about the economic wealth that these Black farmers would really have right now,” he said.
Tillman said he started the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project as an effort to push farm equity for agricultural producers across the state.
Tillman cites access to capital, technical challenges and overall lack of access as barriers.
“A lot of the discrimination had to do with them deterring people away from the process. I know that it is going to be a struggle to get a lot of these people through this [next application process],” he added.
“ If you were affected by USDA and discrimination, [we hope] farmers can get in there with a complete package in and hopefully get compensated and get some funds out of this,” he said.
Representing Black farmers and families all across the country, Boyd is traveling around the country to educate Black farmers about the intricacies of debt relief, and a looming deadline.
“October 31, there’s no extension on the deadline and there’s no appeal process if you win or lose. These aren’t things that I wanted but those are the facts,” he said.
As for George Roberts – he said he plans to apply for whatever help may be available.
He’s well acquainted with the challenges to maintain his family’s legacy and livelihood.
During the height of Covid-19, he started a GoFundMe to help raise money to keep the farm operation going.
“There’s a lot of blood sweat and tears was done on this farm [and] it’s up to me and my generations to keep it.”
Under the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress has set aside a total of $2.2 Billion for discrimination claims with up to $500,000 available for each claim.
Applications for the funds allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act will be accepted until October 31, 2023.