On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article regarding the Biden administration’s federal farm aid program that excludes white farmers over half a year after a judge halted the program, blaming its legal stalling on white farmers that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race.
The aid program was brought back into the spotlight after a number of these farmers have received notification from the federal government regarding unpaid loans and foreclosures. In May, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the lawsuit from white farmers who felt they were discriminated against in farm funding. Vilsack said that decades of discrimination against farmers of color was a reason to skew the funding in their favor now.
The legislation included $4 billion in debt forgiveness for black and other "socially disadvantaged" farmers. These farmers have yet to see any relief, after lawsuits halted the program. ""So the American Rescue Plan's effort is to begin to address the cumulative effect of that discrimination in terms of socially disadvantaged producers," Vilsak said in May.
The lawsuits state that it would be unfair to provide forgiveness based solely on race alone, leaving many disadvantaged white farmers out of the running for aid.
Vilsack defended the program, saying essentially that white farmers were making out okay, so it was okay to discriminate against them with this batch of funding. "...when you look at the COVID relief packages that have been passed and distributed by USDA prior to the American Rescue Plan," Vilsack said, 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," he said.
"Groups of white farmers in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois sued the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory, suggesting that a successful [b]lack farmer could have his debts cleared while a struggling white farm could go out of business," wrote The New York Times.
In June of last year, Federal judge William Griesbach in Florida blocked the program, stating in his opinion: "use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law."
"But the entire initiative has been stymied amid lawsuits from white farmers and groups representing them that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race," the Times wrote.
Now, these farmers that had been expecting debt relief are facing foreclosures due to unpaid loan payments. One of these farmers is Brandon Smith, who owes around $200,000 in outstanding loans.
He signed documents from the Agriculture Department last year accepting the debt relief, and purchased more equipment for his ranch, believing that his debt would be forgiven.
"I trusted the government that we had a deal, and down here at the end of the day, the rug gets pulled out from under me," said Smith. But the Department of Agriculture let Smith down in pushing a discriminatory spending package that did not make it through the courts.
Another farmer, Leonard Jackson, from Oklahoma, said he received a warning notice despite sending similar documents to the Department of Agriculture as well.
"They said that they were paying off everybody’s loans and not to make payments and then they sent this," Jackson said.
The Biden administration has defended the program, with an Agriculture Department spokeswoman saying that while the administration has not appealed the injunctions, it was continuing to defend the program as court cases move forward.
The department has assured that has no intention of foreclosing on farms, citing a moratorium on the actions put into place last year, but that it was required by law to send out the notices.
"We want borrowers to know the bottom line is, actions such as acceleration and foreclosure remain suspended for direct loan borrowers due to the pandemic," Kate Waters, a department spokeswoman, said. "We remain under the moratorium, and we will continue to communicate with our borrowers so they understand their rights and understand their debt servicing options."