WASHINGTON - This year, he successfully pushed for a $1.15 billion settlement for black farmers.
Whether it changed any votes in Congress is not clear, but John W. Boyd Jr.'s tractor ride through Washington this year certainly put a spotlight on his tireless lobbying efforts to get justice for black farmers.
Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, got national media attention in September when he drove his orange Kubota tractor around the streets of Washington, stopping at the Capitol, the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among other locations.
His mission was to draw attention to his lengthy quest to get a settlement for thousands of black farmers who claimed decades of racial discrimination in federal farm loan programs.
"I do think it had an impact," said Boyd, a Southside Virginia grain and cattle farmer.
In November, Congress finally took the step Boyd had been demanding. It approved funding for a $1.15 billion legal settlement for black farmers. President Barack Obama signed the legislation in December.
"It is a huge victory, but it took too long," Boyd said.
Boyd said he has lost track of how many trips he made to Washington to lobby.
When not in D.C. or on his farm, Boyd said he also attended too many funerals this year — four in August alone — for older black farmers who had been waiting for a redress of grievances. "It got so that for some families in other states, I had to tell them I just could not get there," he said.
At the same time, Boyd, like many farmers in Virginia, was seeing his crops struggle through a severe drought this summer. "I am hopeful that next year will be a better crop year," he said.
Boyd also found himself defending the proposed settlement against critics who said it was rife with potential for fraud and abuse.
The original lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was settled in 1999, with the government paying out $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers who had been denied farm loans in what a former U.S. agriculture secretary conceded was a pattern of discrimination. The USDA agreed in February to a new round of payments for farmers who said they were not notified and were unfairly left out the earlier settlement.
Critics said the settlement has attracted claims from thousands of people who are not connected to farming. Boyd countered that the settlement does not mean payments automatically will go to anyone who files a claim.
"Each case will be heard on its own merits by independent arbitrators that do not work for the USDA or for the black farmers," Boyd said. "There will be some farmers who may or may not be able to prove their case."
The settlement still must be approved by a U.S. District Court judge, a ruling that should come by the summer of 2011. How much money each farmer gets ultimately will depend on how many claims are proved before a neutral panel, but for most of the farmers the maximum amount will be $50,000. The process could take until 2012, said Andy Marks, a lead attorney on the discrimination case.
"The work is just starting," said Boyd, whose next step is to get the word out. No one is sure how many farmers could be eligible for part of the settlement, though estimates go as high as 80,000.
"I would say that John Boyd's role in keeping the focus of both the (Obama) administration and Congress on the importance of finalizing the settlement was vital," Marks said. "He was tireless and just really passionately committed to ensuring that the injustice that all of the black farmers suffered over the decades would be addressed."