The US bailout included a loan forgiveness for Minnesota farmers of color. Then a group of white farmers took legal action.

As part of the Biden administration’s US bailout, minority farmers in Minnesota were to receive a portion of the $ 4 billion in loan cancellation dedicated to BIPOC farmers across the country. That is, until some white farmers in the state filed a complaint claim that the loan forgiveness program is racist.

Now the Agriculture Department has suspended the loan cancellation program until the lawsuit – and the Wisconsin, Ohio and South Dakota lawsuits – are settled.

However, funding blocks like this are nothing new to black farmers – farmers of color in Minnesota may see a story of broken promises repeat itself in this lawsuit.

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What the trial involves

The lawsuit in question was brought by plaintiffs Steve Nuest, owner of Nuest Farms in Stevens County; Kaylyn Dalsted, owner of Arrow D Ranch in Pembina County, North Dakota; Chad Walter, co-owner of Walter Brothers Family Farm in Brown County; Todd County Kevin and Lynelle Vetsch; and Jonathan and Samantha Quamme from Roseau County. They took legal action against Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Farm Service Agency administrator Zach Ducheneaux.

In general, plaintiffs contest US bailout loan forgiveness program which includes provisions allowing the US Department of Agriculture to pay up to 120 percent of FSA loan balances to any “socially disadvantaged” producer with an eligible loan. In USDA terms, “socially disadvantaged” includes black farmers, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others of color.

In a statement when the program was announced, Vilsack mentionned USDA would “grant historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers from June.” Vilsack also said the loan cancellation will be “one of the most important civil rights pieces of legislation in decades. The law directs USDA to repay agricultural loans to nearly 16,000 minority farmers and to begin addressing long-standing racial equity issues that have plagued farmers of color for generations.

But when some white farmers watched the program, they saw racism where Vilsack saw civil rights.

“If plaintiffs were eligible for the loan forgiveness allowance, 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 their local communities, ”the lawsuit said. “Because complainants are not even eligible to apply to the program purely on the basis of their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and have therefore suffered prejudice.”

The USDA issued a statement saying the department is reviewing the lawsuit with the US Department of Justice, but the agency plans to continue offering a loan rebate to “socially disadvantaged” farmers. Despite this claim, payments are still pending.

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The plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that “relying on general assumptions of historical discrimination is exactly what the United States has done here” and dispute the phrase “socially disadvantaged” having explicit racial classifications. They say they are otherwise eligible for the loan forgiveness program except for the color of their skin.

But Patrice Bailey, an assistant commissioner who heads the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Emerging Farmers Initiative, doesn’t see it that way.

“[The loan forgiveness program] has nothing to do with punishing white farmers, ”Bailey said. “You still see the same white people getting grants and applying for grants and getting grants in that order. [But] the people who need the grants the most may not know where to start. … This ensures that there is diversity within this new opportunity, especially the indigenous tribal nations, which historically are not on this list.

Bailey, a black farmer himself, said this lawsuit is just a drop in the bucket of setbacks farmers of color across the country have experienced since the end of the Civil War.

This problem is not new

After the Civil War, the federal government made a pledge to formerly enslaved people, commonly referred to as the “40 Acres and a Mule” pledge, which was the first systematic attempt to provide some form of radical reparations for the time.

Those freed from slavery and their descendants accumulated 19 million acres of land, but when President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor and Southern sympathizer, took office, he rescinded the order promising land to freed people. Much of the land reverted to the plantation owners who originally owned it along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Many blacks could still farm, but black farmers could be driven from their land by force or by tax evasion. Some banks were unwilling to finance agricultural equipment. Local agriculture ministry offices would also deny or delay loans to black farmers, documented in a series of government reports from the 1960s.

In 1910, 14 percent of all owner-operators were black. In 2012, however, this number has fallen to 1.5 percent of all farmers.

Inequalities continued over the decades, and from 2012 to 2014, whites generated 98 percent of all agricultural income from land ownership and 97 percent of income from operating farms. Farmers of color, on the other hand, made up less than four percent of farm owner-operators and were more likely to be renters than owners, meaning they couldn’t generate the same amount of wealth as their landlord counterparts. farming lands. Latinxes also made up over 80% of farm workers, a notoriously underpaid and vulnerable position in American agriculture.

USDA sent tens of billions of dollars to farmers affected by COVID-19 in 2020, but only one percent of this aid went to “socially disadvantaged producers”. Before the US bailout, the last big payout to black farmers only came after a class action which started in the 1990s.

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The most recent agricultural census identified 39 black farmers in Minnesota on nearly 69,000 farms. A total of 1,267 farmers of color operate in the state and most run small farms. Nationally, about 1.3 percent of farmers are black. In Minnesota, it’s 0.03 percent. In 2017, the Center for American Progress found the average full-time black farmer earned $ 2,408 in income, compared to $ 17,190 for the average white farmer. The disparity may be due in part to the fact that the average acreage of black farmers is around a quarter of the national average.

“It is high time to make sure that the ’40 Acres and a Mullet’ promise really comes true,” Bailey said. But despite the major challenges and obstacles he and other farmers of color have faced, Bailey is optimistic. He highlighted legislation that has been passed or is underway to support farmers of color at both state and federal levels.

“Being the first Commissioner of Color in the state’s history at MDA and starting to address these issues is a step in the right direction for all of these obstacles to be even overcome,” Bailey said.

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