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In 2021, the Biden administration approved $4 billion in loan forgiveness for Black farmers and other farmers of color, as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. The aid was supposed to make up for decades of discrimination. However, White farmers have sued, and that aid has yet to be paid out as the issue makes it way through the courts. 

Eddie Wise is one farmer who claimed to face discrimination. He was the son of a sharecropper. In 1996, he and his wife, Dorothy, bought a farm with a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Twenty years later, the USDA foreclosed on the property and evicted him. 

John Biewen of “Scene on Radio” teamed up with Reveal to investigate Wise’s claim of race-based discrimination. Wise’s story is one piece of the puzzle explaining how Black families went from owning nearly a million farms in 1920 to now fewer than 36,000.

The federal government has admitted it was part of the problem. In 1997, a USDA report 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. But advocates for Black farmers say problems persist.

This episode was originally broadcast in July 2017.

Credits

Lead producer: John Biewen of the podcast “Scene on Radio” from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University | Editor: Deborah George | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Mix and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Mix and original score: Ramtin Arablouei | Post-production team: Steven Rascón, Kathryn Styer Martínez and Jess Alvarenga | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Ben Fine | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

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.

Aura Bogado:Hi, I’m Aura Bogado, a senior reporter at Reveal. My work focuses on migrant children confined in federal custody. I’ve investigated abuse, forced drugging, even tasing in government-sponsored shelters. The stories I work on are told from the perspective of the people experiencing the policies and practices I’m investigating. In this case, migrant children. Support rigorous ethical investigative reporting, donate today at revealnews.org/donate.
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 like he’d have to go into the world.
Eddie Wise:When I turned 18, I signed up to go in the Army.
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 going to 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 US Agriculture Department discriminated against him and his wife, Dorothy, because of their race and finally drove them off their land. We first brought you this story back in 2017. John Biewen of the podcast, Scene on Radio, followed the Wises for years and investigated what happened to them.
John Biewen:So what’s the day today?
Eddie Wise:Today is the, what? I don’t-
John Biewen:I think it’s the 20th.
Eddie Wise:The day is January 20th, Wednesday.
John Biewen:January 20th, 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.
Eddie Wise:Well, let’s walk on up this way.
John Biewen:And here do they come around that curve. White SUVs and squad cars. Seven vehicles in all. Officers spill out. I count 14 men and women, mostly US Marshals with a few county deputies as backup. Some of the marshals carry semiautomatic rifles.
Eddie Wise:Come on down.
Deputy Coney:How are you doing this morning, sir?
Eddie Wise:My dogs don’t bite.
Deputy Coney:Sir?
Eddie Wise:I said my dogs don’t bite.
John Biewen:A US marshal, the leader of the operation, approaches Eddie and presents the papers.
Deputy Coney:I’m Deputy Coney with the Marshal Service. You obviously know what’s going on.
Eddie Wise:I know you all we’re coming.
Deputy Coney:Yes sir. There’s a foreclosure judgment’s been issued against you and a seizure order. So we’re going to have to remove you from your residence this morning and there are certain items going to be taken. Okay?
Eddie Wise:Well, my wife is sick.
Deputy Coney:Okay. Well, we’ll work with you and give you a reasonable amount of time, but you are going to have to take your wife and vacate the premises this morning, sir. Okay. And there’s items we’re going to be seizing on your property. There’s a full list here and this copy is for you.
John Biewen:Eddie takes the document and studies it. He has a round face and a farmer’s thick hand. He’s still a formidable presence at 72 years old.
Deputy 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.
Deputy Coney:Understand that.
John Biewen:Eddie was told the Marshals would be coming to seize his farm equipment because he hadn’t made payments on his government loan, but he says he didn’t know he and Dorothy would be evicted today.
Eddie Wise:So I’m supposed to take my wife and just walk off.
Deputy Coney:Yes, sir. Unfortunately, that’s the order from the court.
Eddie Wise:Okay.
Deputy Coney:Do you have any weapons in the house, sir?
Eddie Wise:Of course, I have weapons in the house. I’m on a farm.
Deputy Coney:I understand that. It’s just a question I have to ask.
Eddie Wise:Yes. Okay. I’m a retired Green Beret.
Deputy Coney:I understand that as well, sir. And I appreciate your service. Can we walk in with you or walk up here with you? Just want to make sure everything’s fine. I’ll let you get your wife. We’re not going to interfere with you getting your wife by any means, but we do need to walk in with you.
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.
Deputy 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.
Deputy Coney:After you, sir, your residence.
John Biewen:Inside, the Marshals secure Eddie’s weapons.
Speaker 6:The rifle right there and the pistol is right there. Do you got any more guns in the house?
Eddie Wise:Yeah. I got a shotgun right behind the door.
Speaker 6: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]
Dorothy:Yeah.
Eddie Wise:You sounding okay. It’s going to be all right, babe. We’re going to just have to figure out where we going to stay and what we going to do.
John Biewen:I asked Dorothy what she’s thinking and feeling.
Dorothy:I don’t feel anything because I’m just going along with what Eddie was saying and what was happening to us. 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.
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:Eddie. Eddie.
John Biewen:That’s Dorothy in the farm.
Eddie Wise:Yeah.
Dorothy:Where are you?
Eddie Wise:Here in the [inaudible] house.
John Biewen:Dorothy tells Eddie in a mock scolding voice to live up to his last name.
Eddie Wise:Be wise. Well, I think the most wise thing that I did was seeing this foxy lady walking down 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.
Eddie Wise:The Army sent me to Howard University to teach. I was teaching the military science department, air mobile operations, repelling, 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 would bring everything. She said, “I’ve wanted a farm all my life.” So I told her, I said, “You’re kidding me.”
Dorothy: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 in North Carolina to find a farm right now.” I said, “I’m going to Wilson, North Carolina to pick blueberries this weekend.”
Dorothy:So I said, “Okay.”
Eddie Wise:She said, “Let me get my hat.”
Dorothy: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 road ever since this, and we’ve been married for what, 16 years now.
Dorothy: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’ll help them no matter what you have to do.
John Biewen:But in 2016, the US government would take the Wise’s farm and run them off.
Al Letson:So how did that end up happening? The Wise’s claim that government officials discriminate against them for over 25 years and set them up to fail.
Eddie Wise:Back in the day, white loan officers would loan money to people they know and 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:Reporter John Biewen picks up their story when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Jim Briggs:We like to think thematically and create music will help listeners understand the story.
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Jim Briggs:Thanks for listening.
Al Letson: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 one percent of farm families are black. The US Agriculture Department has called itself “a contributing factor in the dramatic decline of black farmers.” That’s from a USDA report 20 years ago. Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. It was known as the Pigford case after a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford. The case was settled in 1999.
Speaker 13: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:The settlement ultimately paid out more than $2.4 billion, but state taxes ate into black farmers’ ability to recover and they continued to lose their farms to USDA foreclosures at a higher rate than white farmers. Eddie and Dorothy Wise said that even after the settlement, government officials continued to discriminate against them. John Biewen continues their story.
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 US Agriculture Department and its lending arm then called the Farmer’s Home Administration or FHA.
Eddie Wise:The good ole 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 in to them, then they hit you, oops, we’re out of money.
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. “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.
Carl Bond:My father’s operation is off the main road where they used to live. Both my mom and my dad now is deceased.
Eddie Wise:Bond retired in 2011 after a 32-year career with the USD 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.
Carl Bond:He came to in my office. He said, “Would you assist me 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, you are a retired officer from the United States Army. The officer should be able to do it.”
John Biewen:Is that an 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 ole boys back in the day, white loan officers were loan money to people they know that said we need some money. And then when we, as blacks, went in to ask, they would say, well, all the money is gone.
John Biewen:I wondered was Sidney Long just being ungenerous in refusing to help the Wise’s with their loan application, or was he violating regulations? I called this guy.
Stephen Carpent…:My name is Stephen Carpenter. I am a lawyer at Farmer’s Legal Action Group, a non-profit law firm in Minnesota that works on behalf of family farmers.
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.
Stephen Carpent…: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 regulation says that USDA officials will give whatever assistance as necessary to complete the application.
John Biewen:So the Wise’s filled out the form with help from Carl Bond, but now their loan officer Sidney Long told them their credit was poor. The Wise’s appealed to the national USDA office and won. By this time, the FHA had become the FSA, the Farm Service Agency. The Wise’s is 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.
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’d 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 has 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. But Eddie says Sidney Long, the loan officer, delayed the release of the Wise’s operating loan.
Eddie Wise:He drug the loan process out for seven damn months.
John Biewen:He 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 an open building with nothing but concrete floors. There were no curtains. And I had got some roles of plastic and tried to put up makeshift curtains to break the wind from blowing in there.
John Biewen:Winter nights in North Carolina often dip below freezing.
Eddie Wise:Newborn pig comes out at 90 degrees and he hits a concrete floor. And you’re talking about about four or five minutes before he’s dead. I lost, I had a little over 400 pigs to 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.
Carl Bond:Their loan would’ve fell under the social disadvantaged loan funds.
John Biewen:That’s a fund for certain kinds of farmers, including African-Americans and women.
Carl Bond:There was plenty of social disadvantaged money available at that time. All loans I had for my social disadvantaged customers went in and got funded.
John Biewen:I requested internal USDA document 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 Wise’s applied the fund ended the year with more than $200 million unspent. By 1998, the Wise’s had secure 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.
Eddie Wise:So he said, “Call [Martin] County and tell Carl Bonds, I want him here and his supervisor.” He said, “By the way, Mr. Wise, Carl Bond is black.” I said, “Good.” So Carl came.
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 moved 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 as his time went on. So that’s why they moved him to me and I had to then service the loan.
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 Wise’s in the winter of 2009, Eddie was about to take a truckload of hogs to slaughter.
Eddie Wise:Once they are slaughtered, they’ll be processed into pork chop, sausages, ribs, neck bones, pigtails, pig ears, all the goodness, all the above. When I look at a pig, I see potential dollars. When I smell pig poop, that’s money. It’s a business.
John Biewen:But the hog operation wasn’t bringing in a lot of money.
Eddie Wise:My income right now is between the wife and I, $55,000 a year, non-farm income.
John Biewen:That income came from Eddie’s Army pension, Dorothy’s retirement from Howard University and their two social security checks.
Eddie Wise:And at $55,000 a year non-farm income helped us stay on the farm because we’re pulling down roughly about 15, $16,000 a year on the farm. You can’t run a hog operation like that. It’s tight.
John Biewen: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 some day he’d pass the farm onto his son. In the farm yard, Eddie calls his three dogs. He’s had them since they were puppies.
Eddie Wise:That’s right. Grub time. They’re a cross between Saint Bernard and Labs. The runt was the smallest one. That’s the solid brown one. Jed is the male. Spot is his sister. They are sister and brothers. There it is. Come on, Jed.
John Biewen: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 Wise’s they took the dogs to the pound, where they were given to three different families. 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 obstructions cost his farm a lot more than that.
Eddie Wise:We weren’t going to take $50,000 cause $50,000 weren’t no money.
John Biewen:Another option under Pigford allowed farmers to sue for more money if they could prove discrimination more directly. But for that, at the Wise’s, would’ve had to hire a lawyer and show that their local FSA office had treated white farmers better.
Eddie Wise:How you going to get the names of the similar white farmers?
John Biewen: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 Wise’s moved on.
Eddie Wise:I was just concentrating on trying to manage the farm.
John Biewen:During the dozen years he managed their loan, Carl Bond helped the Wise’s 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. 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 a approach.
Carl Bond:They reviewed everything that I did on the Wise’s. 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 something we find. You get these things corrected, then everything was good.
John Biewen:But there were signs that higher ups in the North Carolina FSA we’re taking a harder look at the Wise’s 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 Wise’s were working on
Carl Bond:After reviewing it, 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 director said, “Okay, let’s go and have a farm visit.”
John Biewen: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.
Carl Bond:That was unusual. I think they wasn’t trusting my say-so. They was trying to damage me.
John Biewen: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.
Carl Bond:You got a black loan officer assisting with a black farmer. They might think, hey, he’s doing too much for this person. But at the end of day, I was doing everybody like that. I treated everybody the same.
John Biewen: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.
Eddie Wise:And he said, “Eddie, the state director want 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 carried my incomplete farm plan to the state office?” So Carl’s supervisor backed up and he said, “Ah, I did Ms. Wise.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because Mike Husky told me to bring it.”
John Biewen:Mike Husky was the farm loan chief for the whole state. Eddie and Carl believe Husky arranged this visit after looking at the farm plan. Why? In their draft, the Wise’s said they had 14 sows, breeding females. Remember, most of their herd froze to death in 1998 and the government hadn’t loaned them anymore money since then. So Eddie says a dozen years later, Mike Husky, 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.
Eddie Wise:So Carl said, “Eddie, how many sows do you have?” I said, “I don’t know, Carl. Let’s counter them. There’s nine 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 that’s 28 sows. On my farm plan, I was only listing 14.
John Biewen:Eddied had just 14 the last time Bond visited the farm, so that’s the number he put down in the draft plan. Since then Eddie had bought and raised 14 more.
Eddie Wise:And so when the director saw those hogs, he start apologizing. He said, “Mr. Wise, I was told the wrong information.”
John Biewen:Jim 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. Martin tells me he remembers the visit to Eddie’s place, but doesn’t remember anyone questioning the accuracy of the farm plan.
Jim Davenport: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 at anytime.
John Biewen:After the FSA officials found everything in order on the farm, Carl Bond turned in the Wise’s plan for 2011.
Eddie Wise:He completed my farm plan in January and submitted it. State director signed off on everything. So everything was fine. We thought.
Al Letson:But everything wasn’t fine. And Eddie’s ultimate dream for his farm would come apart.
Eddie Wise:That was the whole thrust in my life. That’s what I worked for to pass the farm on to my son, but I can’t pass something on to him that the government’s taken. It’s kind of hard to do.
Al Letson:When we come back, John Biewen tracks down the people involved in Eddie’s case to find out what went wrong.

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From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Eddie and Dorothy Wise bought 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 blamed part of their losses on what they call obstruction by their first loan officer who was white. Their 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. John Biewen picks up the story.
John Biewen: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 Nichols. Nichols has worked with the FSA since 1984.
Eddie Wise: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 in doing my farm plan. So she looked at me and said, “We don’t do that anymore.”
John Biewen:Meaning we don’t help you?
Eddie Wise:Right.
John Biewen:This reminded the Wise’s of the 1990s and their first loan officer who said no to them at every turn. Eddie did what he’d 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. What happened next is revealed in a series of internal FSA documents. While I was working on this story, Eddie and Dorothy Wise requested their own file from the Farm Service Agency in North Carolina. The FSA made copies and gave the Wise’s a stack of paper several inches thick, including some documents they’d never seen.

I met up with Eddie at Carl Bond’s farm. And the three of us looked over the files. In these, there were these two documents, these two [E-Dollars] reports.
Eddie Wise:Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Biewen: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. They 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.
John Biewen:That is the computer program approved the plan, but the Wise’s say their loan officer, Paula Nichols never told them that. Instead the same day that printout was done, the Wise’s had a meeting with Nichols at her office. She told them they were being denied 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’ve taken the bulk of their total income, making it impossible to feed their hogs and pay their other bills. They got up and left.
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 a arrested.”
John Biewen:Also in the file, there’s another computer analysis.
Carl Bond:Okay. On this form was dated 6/7/2012.
John Biewen:That’s two weeks after the first printout and that meeting. The new report showed a different result.
Carl Bond:Now it says, Dorothy M. Wise does not meet the requirement of the FSA recollection and not eligible for primary service action.
John Biewen: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 produce X number of piglets. They’ll be fed and slaughtered and sold, bringing in this many dollars against the estimated expenses.
Carl Bond:You have to show your documentation of what you was doing, how you come up with those figures.
John Biewen:The farmer’s production history is key in deciding the numbers to plug in. The plan the Wise’s 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.
Carl Bond:Just so we could be on the safe side and wouldn’t have to be questioned.
John Biewen: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 Wise’s turned in with their farm plan.
Carl Bond:My calculation was he would produce 640 pigs and would say give or take, he may lose 110 of them. So he will have 530 pigs to send to market.
John Biewen:Bond points out that someone made additions on the page where he’d written that the Wise’s sows would produce 10 piglets per litter. So handwritten under your 10-
Carl Bond:Is a eight.
John Biewen:Is somebody’s written.
Carl Bond:Yes.
John Biewen:Lowering the number of pigs per litter from 10 to eight, cut Eddie’s production by more than 100 piglets for the year, thus the shortfall in projected income. Stephen Carpenter of the Farmer’s Legal Action Group says lowering a farmer’s production numbers is a violation of USDA rules.
Stephen Carpent…:If somebody has historically had 12 and a half pigs per sow, per year, that’s what should be used in the cash flow.
John Biewen:Carl Bond says Paula Nichols also violated procedures by simply replacing the Wise’s 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 you in file, but you have to meet with the borrower to explain to the borrower, customer that, okay, I did my business plan and it’s different from 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 and I can be happy with, but that never happened.
John Biewen: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 Wise’s legal action against the agency. Carl Bond says it’s very unlikely that Paula Nichols made the decision all by herself to get tougher on the Wise’s. 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 must have came from the state office. And at that time the chief was Mike Husky.
John Biewen:Mike Husky, 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. Husky was Paula Nichols’ direct supervisor at the time.
Aaron Martin:Mike was just very strict about debt.
John Biewen:That’s Aaron Martin, the former FSA state director and Mike Husky’s boss until Martin retired at the end of 2011. Martin says he and Husky had different philosophies. Martin appreciated loan officers like Carl Bond, he says, who used their discretion to help the farmer whenever possible. He says Husky was less forgiving.
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 Biewen:Martin says he doesn’t believe Husky treated farmers differently based on their race. He was strict with everyone. But then Martin tells a story about a time when he found Husky’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.
Aaron Martin:Mike told me that there was nothing anybody could do that. If they wanted to contest it, they would have to hire a lawyer. Well, I just was not having any of that. It was not their fault, it was the agency’s fault.
John Biewen:Martin says he overruled Husky and the FSA covered the cost of its mistake. He says, Husky would’ve left it to the farmers to solve the problem.
Aaron Martin:I just couldn’t believe it.
John Biewen: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 Biewen:Mike Husky retired at the beginning of 2017. I went to see him at his home on the rural outskirts of Raleigh. Hi, is this Mr. Husky?
Mike Husky:Yes.
John Biewen:I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I couldn’t find a phone number for you. My name’s John Biewen. I’m a reporter and-
Mike Husky:I’m not talking to you.
John Biewen:Through a closed glass door. He says, “I’m not talking to you.” I’m working on a story about Eddie-
Mike Husky:I know what you’re working on.
John Biewen:Okay.
Mike Husky:I’m not talking to you.
John Biewen:Husky says he knows what I’m working on. I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a chance to respond.
Mike Husky:I can’t talk to you about that case.
John Biewen:Why not?
Mike Husky:I can’t.
John Biewen:I can’t, he said.

In a brief written statement, the only response to questions about the Wise case, the USDA said, it restructured the Wise’s debt four times between 1998 and 2010, that’s during the time Carl Bond was managing the loan. The statement says the Wise’s paid a total of only $8,000 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 Wise’s stopped making payments in 2011.

When you’re working with a farmer, when do you decide, when do you know, all right, it’s time to-
Carl Bond:To quit?
John Biewen:Yeah. To pull the plug, we can’t continue. Carl Bond 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.
Carl Bond: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 let the farmer make the decision themselves.
John Biewen:Paula Nichols simply told the Wise’s they would have to start paying much more on their loan. They refused and defaulted. At that point, Bond says the rules governing USDA loans say, Nichols should have offered the Wise’s what’s known as homestead protection.
Carl Bond: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 been the pond in front of his land, about five acres behind the house where he could have a garden there, but he would never offered that.
John Biewen:He is supposed to be offered that?
Carl Bond: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 Wise’s, is it an isolated instance or part of a continuing problem? Not shockingly, it depends on who you ask.
Gary Grant:Okay, we are ready. Good morning. My name is Gary Grant and I’m president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.
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.
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.
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 put 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.
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 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 ask for help when filing complaints. And Vilsack received a monthly report from the department’s office of civil rights.
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 to a hundred thousand employees.
Ronnie Wise:Hello.
John Biewen:Mr. Wise. 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.
Ronnie Wise:The garden is behind shed. And then what I have in pots, I have in front with the raised beds we do back behind shed. Being back here is like being back as close to North Carolina as I could get without being in North Carolina.
John Biewen:And Ronnie recently turned 50, an age that would’ve 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 because he always talked about being able to pass down something because his parents never gave him anything. There was nothing to pass on. See, 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 because at this point, there’s nothing to go back to.
Eddie Wise:That was the whole thrust in my life, that’s what I worked for to pass it on to my son. That was a done deal, but I can’t pass something on to him that the government’s taken. It’s kind of hard to do. It’s hard to even think about.
John Biewen:Eddie is now at his sister’s house in Williamston, 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.
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 22: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.
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.
Eddie Wise:You haven’t had anything? So you want me to kick it off with a cookie? Huh?

It’s been a lot that has gone on with us. A lot has happened to us. We surveyed the situation and put things in place to create some happiness for us. And my thing is, if I ain’t doing something to make her happy, my day is not complete. If I miss a day or so and show up, she’ll sit there, I’m so glad you here. She grab me by the hand. And I said, I’m here, babe. When she hear my voice, she know it’s me. That makes my day.

Want a sip? You want it?
Dorothy:Yes.
Eddie Wise:Okay. Coming at you.
Al Letson:We first aired Dorothy and Eddie Wise’s story in July, 2017. Dorothy died the following September of complications from diabetes. We recently heard that Eddie has also passed. His obituary from July 2021 nods to their relationship. It says he was proceeded in death by his Brown Sugar, Dorothy Jeanette Wise.

Meanwhile, black farmers continued to struggle. Last year, the Biden administration approved $4 billion in debt relief as a part of a COVID stimulus package. It was supposed to make up for some of the historic inequity we’ve been telling you about in today’s show, but white farmers in several states sued, claiming reverse discrimination and a judge put the program on hold until the lawsuit is settled. For now, all that money is on hold and black farmers continue to wait.

Our show is produced by John Biewen. The podcast, Scene on Radio. That’s S-C-E-N-E on Radio, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The editor was Deborah George. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the great, Mostafa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. Original music and mixing this week by Ron Team [inaudible]. Our post-production team this week also includes Stephen Rascon, Katherine Styer Martinez, and Jess Alvarenga. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala. Sumi Aggarwal is our editor in chief. 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 John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simon Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the In As Much Foundation.

Reveal is the co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple podcast. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple podcast app on your phone, search for Reveal. Then scroll down to where you see, write a review, and there tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us and well, it really does make a difference. And if you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me, like right now. Like thank, not him, no, you. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

All right.
Speaker 23:From PRX.

Deborah George is the senior radio editor for Reveal. She's also a contributing editor with the ""Radio Diaries"" series on NPR's ""All Things Considered."" George has worked in the U.S., Asia, Africa and Latin America, covering stories ranging from the Los Angeles riots to the Rwandan genocide. She's a two-time recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award and a six-time recipient of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award (five silver batons and one gold baton).

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Jess Alvarenga (they/she) is an associate producer for Reveal. They are an audio producer and documentary filmmaker from the American South. Meeting at the intersection of art and journalism, they use storytelling as a way to document and reimagine immigrant narratives, particularly those of the Central American diaspora. In 2017, Alvarenga was awarded an individual artist grant from the Houston Arts Alliance and the City of Houston for their work on the city’s Central American population. They have a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.