That was the first George and Patricia heard of a class-action lawsuit making its way to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman (named for North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford) would eventually pay out millions of dollars to black farmers as compensation for years of discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But the allegations the black farmers and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters were talking about with Secretary of Agriculture (and former Kansas Representative) Dan Glickman on that newscast were nothing new to George and his wife.
The Hildebrandts had been battling the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in nearby Effingham, Kansas, for nearly a decade, begging FSA officer Bruce Nutsch to give them loans, applications for assistance, or anything that would keep them going on the small farm that had been in George's family for three generations. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, George says.
George's two fields, one for organic vegetables and the other for wheat and soybeans, spread out half-planted that spring. He had scraped together enough money to begin his planting but was nearly a month behind. Meanwhile, shoots of green were already sprouting on the land owned by his white neighbors.
All of the farmers in the Missouri River bottoms of Kansas operated at the mercy of the elements. All had watched helplessly in 1993 when the river rose up and engulfed surrounding farms, submerging fields, crops, and the Hildebrandts' home beneath 50 feet of muddy river. George and Patricia lost everything they owned in that flood. They later rebuilt their house, but being washed out and driven from their home was about all the Hildebrandts had in common with their neighbors.
Like the white farmers, George's livelihood depended on staffers at the Farm Service Agency, whose offices were in place to loan money and offer other help to farmers when storms or droughts ravaged their crops or they needed to buy seed and equipment. The FSA was supposed to help George. Instead, he says, that agency has repeatedly thrown roadblocks in his way.
George knew that being a month behind in his planting would cost him. Even so, a greater burden had weighed upon his shoulders as he'd driven his old tractor across the fields that spring. He had a lot more to lose than a bountiful harvest. The flood four years earlier had wiped them out financially, causing him to fall behind on his mortgage payments and damaging his credit at the bank. The FSA had recently stepped up its attempts to foreclose on his farm. The Hildebrandts were just a few weeks away from losing their home.
George and Patricia were surprised to turn on CNN and hear that thousands of minority farmers were operating on next to nothing because the USDA hadn't given them any help. Finally someone was paying attention, listening closely enough to hold a meeting with the United States Secretary of Agriculture. George could barely sit still. Patricia was excited too, but she had already seen too many years of dealing with FSA agents who were unresponsive, even hostile, to their needs.