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‘Legitimate reason’ behind debt relief for minority farmers, says Vilsack

The USDA will proceed with $4 billion in loan forgiveness for socially disadvantaged farmers despite lawsuits that want to add white farmers to the program, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. The assistance is intended to address the cumulative effect of ingrained discrimination against Blacks and other farmers of color, said Vilsack at the White House.

“So I think there is a very legitimate reason for doing what we’re doing,” he told reporters. “I think it has to be complemented with additional steps … 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 for local and regional food production. We’re going to proceed forward.”

Loan forgiveness was included in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus package signed by President Biden in early March. It was the culmination of a generation-long campaign dating from the so-called Pigford settlement of 1999, in which the USDA acknowledged decades of bias against Black farmers in its farm loan and other assistance programs.

Along with erasing debts owed by Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and other minority farmers on USDA loans, Congress allotted $1 billion to improve access to land, resolve “heirs property” issues, and provide legal aid to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that says the debt relief plan is unconstitutional. “Americans of all races and ethnicities must have the opportunity to receive” USDA loan forgiveness, said the Trump-backed America First Legal Foundation, which filed the suit last week in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas. Other white farmers have filed separate suits.

The America First lawsuit says U.S. history is filled with discrimination against white immigrants based on their countries of origin or religious beliefs, so white farmers should qualify for debt relief, too. Attempts to remedy past discrimination are themselves discriminatory, said the group.

Asked about the lawsuits, Vilsack said there was no question that decades ago, USDA offices gave slower treatment to Black farmers — if they didn’t totally ignore them — seeking federal assistance routinely available to whites. “We’ve never absolutely dealt with the cumulative effect” on socially disadvantaged farmers. Over the years, farming has become a 95% white occupation.

“When you look at the Covid relief plans that had been passed and distributed by USDA [in 2020], and you look at who disproportionately received the benefits of those Covid payments, it’s pretty clear that white farmers did pretty well,” said Vilsack One analysis says white farmers received 97% of the money in the first of two pandemic relief programs last year.

To watch a C-SPAN video of Vilsack’s remarks at a White House briefing, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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