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5 White farmers sue government over racial exclusivity of debt relief

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Farmers from the Midwest have joined together to file a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging racial bias was taking place since they can’t participate in the recent COVID-19 loan forgiveness program because they’re White.

The plaintiffs — farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Ohio — brought the case against the federal government due to the announcement that minority farmers will be eligible for $4 billion in debt relief (as well as $1 billion in other education and grants), thanks to the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was included in the COVID-19 relief bill earlier this year.

The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act directs the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to “pay to each lender of farm loans guaranteed by the Secretary an amount equal to the principal and interest outstanding as of the date of enactment of this Act on all farm loans held by the lender, the borrowers of which are socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, such that the borrowers shall be relieved of the obligation to repay the principal and interest due on those guaranteed farm loans.”

However, the Midwest plaintiffs believe they are also being discriminated against. The lawsuit states, “Were plaintiffs eligible for the loan forgiveness benefit, they would have the opportunity to make additional investments in their property, expand their farms, purchase equipment and supplies, and otherwise support their families and local communities. Because plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed the lawsuit on behalf of the five farmers from four states. Adam Faust, one of the plaintiffs from Calumet County, Wisconsin, said, “There should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race. The economic impact from COVID-19 didn’t hurt any race more than another as far as agriculture goes.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement saying it was reviewing the lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice but that there are no plans to halt the payments that benefit minority farmers, according to The Associated Press. Vilsack also noted in a previous interview that only 0.1 percent of the previous coronavirus relief money went to Black farmers, though it was unclear how many Black farmers applied for or were eligible for such money. According to Vilsack, Black farmers received $20.8 million of nearly $26 billion in two rounds of payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

Black farmers as a whole in the United States have seen reductions in number of farmers and total acres over the past century. Between 1900 and 1974, the number of farmers declined by approximately 60 percent, while the number of Black farmers declined by 94 percent during the same period. Additionally, in 1920 Black farms operated 45 million acres, primarily in the South. By 2017, that shrunk to just 1.1 million acres.

More than two decades ago, the USDA found itself in the crosshairs of a lawsuit from Black agricultural community, detailing decades-long biases on the part of the federal agency. Though that lawsuit is long settled, this week’s lawsuit is not the only recent discrimination lawsuit that has been brought against the federal government by those in the agriculture industry. In a similar suit, the Agriculture Commissioner of Texas Sid Miller is suing the USDA, in a personal capacity. Backed by America First Legal, Miller filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The lawsuit alleged that the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 discriminates against American citizen farmers and ranchers based upon their race. Specifically, Sections 1005 and 1006 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provide benefits to farmers and ranchers, but excludes many potential beneficiaries based solely upon their ethnicity or race.  

Additionally, two Republican lawmakers — U.S. Reps. Tom Tiffany (Wis.) and Burgess Owens (Utah) — announced in April that they are planning to introduce the Agriculture Civil Rights and Equality Act (ACRE Act), which would prohibit officials at the USDA from discriminating or providing preferential treatment to any person on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex. This, too, was initiated in response to Black and other minority farmers receiving the $5 billion in aid from the COVID relief bill.

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