Hard times down on the farm

By LEON DANIEL, UPI National Reporter

SUMNER, Ga. -- 'We're kind of like an endangered species,' said Carl Parker, one of America's diminishing breed of black farmers, 'but there are laws to protect animals.'

Parker and his brother, Gary, each owe the Farmers Home Administration $155,000, borrowed against the 450 acres they farm.


Now, they say, the FmHA refuses to lend them another $70,000 each, which they desperately need to keep farming.

'I feel like we're being discriminated against because we're black,' Carl said. 'We don't want them to give us anything. We just want them to work with us.'

Elmo Richey, a 73-year-old black man who farms 78 acres nearby, is in even deeper trouble. He faces imminent eviction unless he raises $102,000 he needs to pay off his FmHA debt.

An organization called Gospel Aid for Farmers USA is trying to raise money to help Richey save the farm he bought in 1944 to raise soybeans, corn and peanuts.


Statistics show blacks comprise only about 1 percent of the farmers in the United States. Some experts predict the black farmer will be virtually extinct by the year 2,000.

In his office in nearby Sylvester, FmHA Worth County Supervisor Amos Morrow, a black, denied racial discrimination by the agency. He acknowledged guidelines from Washington for loans are stricter now.

'Now they tell us to use a fellow's production history and not to be overly optimistic,' he said.

Current hard times afflict white farmers as well as black ones, Morrow pointed out.

The relief effort on Richey's behalf prompted news coverage of his plight, as well as resentment on the part of some of his white neighbors.

'I feel like the government needs to have its head examined for lending him that much money,' said Dan McDonald, who gave up farming for retirement and now rents his 200 acres to others still trying.

As for Richey, McDonald said, 'He shouldn't have borrowed all that money on a two-horse crop.'

If farmers are in deep trouble, so is the FmHA, which has written off as uncollectible $431.8 million in taxpayer-funded loans in the past two years -- more than the previous 20 years combined. Georgia farmers hold more than $1 billion in FmHA farm loans, nearly three-quarters of which are delinquent.


Critics say the FmHA loaned too much money for about five years starting a decade ago and a lot of farmers got in over their heads. Farm prices were high then and some farmers thought the good times would last.

Last year's Southern drought had a devastating effect. Georgia farmers were among those who appeared almost nightly on television news shows with tales of woe.

Towns like Sumner -- population about 300 -- are not what they once were -- and probably never will be again.

'This used to be cotton country,' Town Clerk Merle Trammel said in an interview at the tiny post office, which is just about all that is left in Sumner and a lot of other vanishing towns in rural America.

Founded in 1883, Sumner has a mayor and a four-member Town Council and no police.

'We don't have any crime,' Trammel said. 'We don't need any police.'

In more prosperous times, Sumner had constables and a bailiff.

Some pinpoint the start of the decline of Sumner, which once claimed to be 'the metropolis of Worth County,' with a great fire in 1923 that started in a barn housing 100 mules and gutted much of the town.


Trains no longer stop in Sumner. Gone forever is the boarding house where traveling salesmen called drummers and maiden schoolteachers once stayed.

Worth County's schools were racially integrated in 1970 but five years later none were left in Sumner, whose children now are bused to Sylvester.

The town no longer has a doctor or a dentist. Gone, too, is the barber shop, where men once gathered to talk crops and watch haircuts.

Asked if he has lived all his life in Sumner, McDonald deadpanned, 'Not yet. I ain't dead yet.'

He acknowledged he has lived here for all of his 68 years.

These days, McDonald mostly sits on his porch and looks out over the acreage where he and his wife raised peanuts, corn, soybeans, watermelons and six children.

'None of my children stayed in farming,' he said. 'You can't raise a family on a damn farm anymore. You could put up a soft-drink stand out on the highway and make more money than you can farming. Drinks don't spoil on you.'

McDonald said he regrets voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

'He don't know one damn thing about farming,' McDonald said. 'He just walks around like a bowlegged chicken.'


McDonald also gave short shrift to Jimmy Carter, his fellow peanut farmer in nearby Plains, saying the nation's 39th president 'wouldn't have nothing to do with farmers once he got elected.'

To come up with a favorable word for a president, McDonald had to reach back to Great Depression days.

'Franklin Roosevelt had programs that everybody said wouldn't work, but they did. He didn't give handouts. He just gave people work.'

McDonald said farming will never again be what it once was and neither will Sumner.

'People in the big towns run the government now because there's a lot more of them than there are farmers,' he said. 'The farmer ain't got no support behind him.'

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