Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the lawsuit facing the Department of Agriculture from white farmers who feel they are being discriminated against as regards forthcoming farm funding from the administration. In short, Vilsack said that decades of discrimination against farmers of color was a reason to skew the funding in their favor now.
"Secretary," a reporter asked, "a group of midwestern farmers last week sued over the COVID loan forgiveness program, arguing that it's unfair to them because they are white. Your reaction to that lawsuit? And do you standby the way that program is structured?"
"That's a great question," Vilsack said. "Appreciate it. I think you have to take it back, 20 or 30 years, when we know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. We know this.
"We have reimbursed people in the past for those acts of discrimination, but we've never absolutely dealt with the cumulative effect. By cumulative effect I mean this: When I have all the USDA programs throughout the last 30 years, my operation could grow. I could invest in more land, I could get the latest investment in technology, I could invest my crop at the right time, I could make more money. If I had limited access, or no access, to USDA programs, obviously, my operation, significantly limited.
"So the American Rescue Plan's effort is to begin to address the cumulative effect of that discrimination in terms of socially disadvantaged producers. Secondly, when you look at the COVID relief packages that have been passed and distributed by USDA prior to the American Rescue Plan, and you look at who disproportionately received the benefits of those COVID payments, it's pretty clear that white farmers did pretty well under that program because of the way it was structured: it's structured on size, it's structured on production.
"I think there is a very legitimate reason for doing what we're doing, I think it has to be complemented with additional steps, which the American Rescue Plan provides, an equity commission to take a look at whether or not there are systemic barriers that need to be removed at the Department. And also taking a look at how we might be able to create better technical assistance, better access to land, better access to markets for socially disadvantaged producers and local and regional food production."
The lawsuit from farmers in the Midwest alleges that it is racial discrimination that is preventing them from participating in a loan forgiveness program from the USDA. Farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Ohio claim that the Biden administration's plan to make $5 billion in debt relief available specifically to minority farmers in the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act is unfair.
The lawsuit reads that: "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."