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USDA Disagrees With Court Order Halting Minority Loan Forgiveness Program

Picture of a tractor on a farm
Fred Miller
UA Division of Agriculture
Corn research plots at the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fayetteville, Ark. on July 8, 2022.

Approximately 16,000 socially disadvantaged farmers, otherwise known as minority farmers, were set to begin receiving about $4 billion in federal debt payment relief as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The funds were to help pay off approximately 20,000 farm loans that had been granted by the U.S. Agriculture Department or private firms to Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other minority farmers. However, those payments were placed on hold just days before they were set to begin going out.

In a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty representing 12 white farmers from nine states who are ineligible for the program, U.S. District Court Judge William C. Griesbach, ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cease and desist forgiving loans based solely on the premise of race last on June 10.

According to his 10-page ruling, Griesbach said that the plaintiffs are “completely excluded from participation based on their race and are thus experiencing discrimination at the hands of their government.”

“The government has created a program that distributes government benefits based solely on the race of the farmer, and Supreme Court precedent is very clear the government can’t do that without a very good reason,'' Luke Berg, deputy counsel with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, told NPR News.

Although the USDA had until Friday to respond to the temporary restraining order, but the agency has already pledged to fight the ruling, telling Politico that the “agency will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers.”

In May, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he stated that, “For Black and minority farmers, the American Rescue Plan could represent one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in decades.”

Beginning in 1965, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated the matter for the first time, it was found that the USDA had been discriminating against Black and other minority farmers when disbursing loans and conservation payments for decades. From that point, the USDA has a long and documented track record of discriminating against socially disadvantaged farmers even as recently as last year.

While the USDA distributed billions of dollars in Covid-19 relief assistance to farmers, the bulk of those funds went primarily to white farmers, while farmers of color only received 1% of the aid. This happens because the USDA relief system is set up in such a way that the biggest farms who have the most output get the relief first. Therefore, since white farmers tend to own more land, they tend to get the funds first.

In an interview on the Arkansas PBS program Arkansas Week, Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, an Arkansas farmer and senior advisor for Racial Equity to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said that “In the agriculture business...each generation builds on the successes of the prior generation. In the case of Black farmers, unfortunately, each generation has to suffer from the discrimination that was forwarded to the prior generation.”

When asked whether he believes that this debt relief is can be considered a form of reverse discrimination, Goldmon said he disagreed. “Reverse discrimination would be more of an issue if there was not a case of discrimination in the first place . . There have been multiple class action settlements that have proven a tragic history of discrimination against farmers of color.”

Goldmon went on to say, “We’ve been mandated by Congress to help these farmers who have been historically underserved, discriminated against, denied access to resources, finances, etc. We’ve been mandated to address these concerns, and it’s a two-step process. Pay the debt and restore trust and confidence.”

In regards to the temporary restraining order placed on the USDA preventing the funds from being disbursed, the agency released an statement objecting to the court’s action.

“We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” the statement said.

In the meantime, an official from the USDA said that qualified minority borrowers should continue to submit their paperwork while the case is proceeding. “...USDA will continue to accept these letters and process them so that when the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”

Christine Jones was an intern with KUAR News in the summer of 2021 as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program. She is a writer, editor, and student in the UA Little Rock Professional Technical Writing MA Program. She also works as a Graduate Assistant for The College of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, and Education at UA Little Rock, as the Communications Assistant.