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The head of the National Black Farmers Association said Thursday the U.S. government has agreed to pay qualified farmers $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said those farmers may also pursue a claim for actual damages from the bias, and potentially receive up to $250,000.

The settlement, which covers as many as 80,000 black farmers at a price of more than $1 billion, still needs to be funded by Congress, both sides acknowledged Thursday.

The 2010 farm bill, still pending in Congress, includes more than $1 billion to cover the compensation claims.

In a written statement Thursday, President Obama said his administration “is dedicated to ensuring that federal agencies treat all our citizens fairly, and the settlement in the Pigford case reflects that commitment.”

The Pigford case was decided in favor of black farmers by a federal judge’s ruling in 1999.

The head of the farmers group, John Boyd, said: “It’s really the Department of Agriculture agreeing to pay, the Justice Department agreeing to pay and our lawyers agreeing to the process.”

In a conference telephone call with reporters, Vilsack said racial bias unquestionably took place in his agency over many years.

He gave an example of two farmers, one white, one black, applying for a farm loan with an office of the USDA.

The white farmer’s application “was processed rapidly, it was approved, and resources were quickly available to enable him to put a crop in,” Vilsack said. The application from the black farmer “was denied without due diligence on whether he had the capacity to repay, or else he or she was strung out over such a long period of time that they couldn’t put in a crop,” Vilsack said.

The result, Vilsack said, was that “in some cases they lost the farm.”

This month Boyd’s group organized demonstrations throughout historically black agricultural areas of the South, including areas in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia.

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