By Madlin Mekelburg
Minority farmers who sought to take advantage of a US debt-assistance program claim in a lawsuit that the government failed to provide any of the promised relief and reneged on a deal to resolve their discrimination claims.
Black, Native American and Hispanic farmers have been denied debt relief promised to them in the massive Covid-19 relief bill passed in 2021, according to a suit seeking class-action status filed by four farmers last week in the US Court of Federal Claims.
The American Rescue Plan Act initially included a provision to relieve certain debt held by minority farmers, designed to account for a history of discrimination in the US Agriculture Department when it comes to doling out aid.
USDA sent letters to minority farmers outlining the terms of the agreement, including a calculation of their eligible debt and the government’s promise to pay it off, according to the suit filed by farmers. One of them, Princess Williams, said she was set to receive $373,154. Another, Lester Bonner, said he was promised $24,749.
But that relief never came.
Groups of White farmers in Wisconsin, Florida and elsewhere sued to block the program, arguing it was racially biased against them. America First Legal, a conservative legal group launched by former top Trump aides Stephen Miller and Mark Meadows, also challenged the program in court. Before funds could be distributed, a federal judge in Florida issued an injunction halting the program, finding the plaintiffs were likely to win if the case went to trial.
In August, Congress rewrote the relevant section to no longer mention race. In its place, they passed provisions providing both loan relief for distressed borrowers and aid for producers who have experienced discrimination.
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“I wish that right-wing extremists and activist judges had not held up the debt forgiveness we passed in the American Rescue Plan,” Democratic Senator Cory Booker said in a statement in August. “But it was clear that those resources were going to be held up in court for years, with an uncertain outcome at the conclusion.”
Some Black farmers decried the change, noting that female producers women could drain the aid intended for minority growers, who’d be left without the help they were promised. Others said replacing the program was the only way to unfreeze the loan relief and protect it from legal challenges.
‘Jim Crow’ Land Ownership Spurs Black Farmers’ Appeals to Biden
The minority farmers claim they invested in new equipment or land after receiving notice that they would receive assistance through the program, but now can’t service the debt they were told the government would pay, according to the lawsuit.
Black farm ownership plunged over the past century amid a record of discrimination by USDA administrators in denying or slow-walking loans and aid to minority farmers and sometimes-violent intimidation by White supremacists seeking to drive African-Americans from the land as they sought voting and other civil rights.
A century ago, there were almost 1 million Black farmers in America, representing 14% of US farmers. By 2017, the last agricultural census, the number had dwindled to about 45,500, or 1.3%. Black-operated farms accounted for only 4.7 million acres of farmland, 0.5% of the total.
The case is Boyd v. USA, 22-cv-01473, US Court of Federal Claims.
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