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'A Drop In The Bucket': Black Farmers Say Blocked USDA Program Wouldn't Provide Equity To All Farmers

Pictured is a farmer holding a bunch of carrots in both hands.
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A U.S. District judge is blocking $4 billion in debt relief meant for minority farmers. That decision sides with a white farmer in Jennings, Florida who says excluding him from the program is a violation of his rights.

$4 billion in loan forgiveness meant to aid minority farmers is tied up in a legal battle. On one side is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) trying to remedy its long history of discriminating against farmers of color. On the other is a white farmer from Jennings, Florida. He argues the loan forgiveness program violates his rights.

Wen Fa is one of the attorneys representing Scott Wynn, the white farmer suing the USDA. Fa says the USDA excludes white farmers from the program based on their race, which he says is unconstitutional.

"We believe that Congress can come back to the drawing board and draw up a race-neutral program that bases loan assistance on individual circumstances," Fa says.

Fa says his solution would likely benefit minority farmers. But Latresia Wilson, an advocate for Black farmers, says the government's tried race-neutral approaches before and failed. She points to reporting by The Washington Post that revealed 99% of the Trump administration's coronavirus relief went to white farmers.

The U.S. District judge who blocked the loan forgiveness program acknowledges the USDA's history of discrimination. However, in her 49-page decision, she wrote that the USDA program relies on present discrimination to remedy past discrimination. Wilson disagrees:

"It's just saying, hey, we're going to take funding, and we're going allocate that funding to the Black farmers. Why is that discriminatory?"

Jesse Haskins is a Tampa-based attorney who focuses on agricultural and defamation issues. He says the crux of the judge's opinion is that the USDA's program is not narrowly tailored enough to help those who faced discrimination.

"There are certain minority farmers who've been discriminated against in the past that wouldn't necessarily qualify for the program because they don't have active loans with the USDA," Haskins says.

If the court decides that the program is illegal, Haskins says it could create a precedent banning future reparation programs from basing eligibility only on race. Instead, he says those programs could look at an applicant's ancestry or socio-economic status.

Both of those would be considered potentially to be race-neutral factors. And I think those types of considerations would potentially save a reparations program for the issue that came up in this case that a program is not sufficiently narrowly tailored," Haskins says.

Meanwhile, some say the USDA's loan forgiveness program doesn't go far enough to address wrongs. Angela Dawson is a fourth-generation Black farmer. She says she'd like to see the current program continue but adds it's a drop in the bucket when it comes to providing equity to all farmers. She says the USDA discriminated against her when it denied her loan application. That experience led her to create the Forty Acre Cooperative. It's a national organization of Black and Indigenous farmers. Dawson says many farmers who get denied USDA loans enter into predatory loan agreements. They wouldn't benefit under the current program.

"Black farmers need to have a whole separate loan program that is different from the white farmer loan program because we have different credit circumstances. We have different asset and equity positions," Dawson says.

Dawson says the legal battle over the USDA debt forgiveness program could last years—which is something Black farmers don't have. Already, there's been a historic loss in Black people operating farms. According to the USDA, in 1920, 14% of farm operators were Black. In 2012 that number dropped to less than 2%.