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Jun 14, 2021
USDA will defend its plan to offer debt relief for minority producers

According to news reports, a Wisconsin federal judge ordered a temporary halt to a $4 billion race-based federal relief program for farmers on June 11.

A group of white farmers had filed a lawsuit arguing the policy discriminates against them.

Milwaukee District Judge William Griesbach issued a temporary restraining order, noting the white farmers “are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim” that the USDA “use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law,” according to NBC News.

“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin,” Griesbach continued.

The USDA said it disagreed with the restraining order.

“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,” a USDA spokesperson said. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”

Texas ag commissioner supports restraining order

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced in a news release on June 11 the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin had issued the temporary restraining order against the Biden Administration, temporarily ceasing payments under a new USDA loan forgiveness program exclusively for minority agriculture producers. In April, Miller had also sued the federal government on this program in the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth but that court has not yet ruled.

“This is a big win for the U.S. Constitution and a return to fundamental American ideal that all men are created equal,” said Miller. “This is a clear signal that the Biden Administration has to stop picking winners and losers and stoking racial tensions, especially in the agriculture sector. American agriculture is too important to our country and the world to have it used as a political tool by this administration.”

In March, the USDA announced it would release some $4 billion of the American Rescue Plan Act exclusively for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” The Department of Agriculture interprets this phrase to include African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaskan natives, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders. White farmers and ranchers are not included in the department’s definition. Under the plan, up to 120% of the outstanding loan debt of farmers of color would be paid off, including payment of any tax indebtedness related to the loans.

In April, Miller engaged the America First Legal Foundation in his private capacity as a farmer and rancher to file the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on the grounds that it violated the foundations of fairness guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

With the ruling from the Wisconsin court, the USDA must actually halt issuing checks to applicants based on race, but the program can continue. However, a ruling from Miller’s lawsuit before the federal court in Texas is imminent and if the injunction is granted it will provide a more permanent halt to the USDA program, Miller’s news release stated.

Florida ag commissioner Nikki Fried Hosts Zoom Discussion on Black Farmers Debt Relief

On the same day as the Wisconsin court order, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried hosted a Zoom conversation with Black elected, agricultural, and financial leaders to discuss the history of systemic discrimination in farm lending. In the past century, Black participation in farming has decreased 85% in Florida, while 90% of Black-owned farmland has been lost across the nation. Under the Biden Administration, the USDA has acknowledged this historic racism, and recently announced $4 billion in American Rescue Plan debt relief for socially disadvantaged agriculture producers authorized by Congress.

Commissioner Fried was joined by State Senator Shevrin Jones (SD-35), State Representative Kevin Chambliss (HD-117), and Florida A&M University Federal Credit Union President and CEO Sheilah Montgomery.

“It has been nearly impossible for farmers of color to acquire land, access funding, and get farms off the ground,” said Fried said. “I appreciate everyone coming together to share their incredible stories of rising above systemic oppression, becoming successful, and working towards making changes that benefit everyone. We should absolutely embrace this— the American dream is based on opportunity and justice for all, and the America Rescue Plan is about making that real with help that is transformational and long overdue.”

“Unfortunately, there has been opposition to this clearly needed, morally-just relief. But we must and will not be deterred from doing what is right, and I look forward to working together with federal, state, local, and community partners on solutions,” further noted Fried in response to yesterday’s court ruling temporarily halting the USDA’s relief payments.

“There are two different realities in which we are living in – it’s the epitome of the old saying: if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu, and Black farmers are on the menu,” said Senator Jones.  “We can’t pass the buck on doing what’s right for people. Someone has to take ownership to make sure that everyone has the access that’s needed to be a part of this American dream that so many people speak of.”

“Thank you Commissioner Fried for your leadership on this and for allowing me to be part of this. We are headed in the right direction because of this conversation,” said Representative Chambliss. “This is a very important step on the path for justice as we take the necessary steps to create a more fair and just America. Let’s have that conversation and then let’s create some good public policy based on the results. I’m excited about the future of Black farmers, not only in Florida but in the United States.”

“At FAMU Credit Union, we pride ourselves on being a community resource— one that gives back to communities of color because of not being able to have access to capital,” said President Montgomery. “This relief is not a giveaway, it’s a chance to be on equal ground. We advocate for opportunities for equity and inclusion, and we’d like to be a part of that conversation.”

The video can be viewed and downloaded here and a Facebook Live livestream can be viewed here.

Socially Disadvantaged: Under Section 2501 of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 (FACT Act), also known as the 1990 Farm Bill, P.L. 101-624, a socially disadvantaged group is defined as a farmer or rancher who is a member of one or more of the following groups whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities, 7 U.S.C. § 2279(e). Groups include, but are not limited to: Black/African American, American Indian or Alaskan native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian American or Pacific Islander; gender is not a criteria in and of itself, but women are included in these categories.

Debt Relief: Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes provisions for USDA to pay up to 120 percent of loan balances, as of January 1, 2021, to any socially disadvantaged producer who has a qualifying loan with the Farm Service Agency (FSA). The 120 percent payment represents the full cost of the loan to include 100 percent toward loan balances as of January 1, 2021; the 20 percent portion is available for tax liabilities and other fees associated with payment of the debt. Any payments by borrowers made since January 1 will be reimbursed in full. Eligible Direct Loan borrowers will begin receiving debt relief letters from FSA in the mail on a rolling basis, beginning the week of May 24. Information for Guaranteed Loan borrowers will be available within 120 days. More information may be found at Farmers.gov/AmericanRescuePlan.

For additional assistance, the USDA Call Center is available at 877-508-8364. Para obtener asistencia adicional, el Centro de llamadas del USDA está disponible en el 877-508-8364.

 




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