Will Black farmers ever receive promised debt relief

Eddie Cotton, 82, Hermanville, MS, clears a field for a fall crop of hay, using a 40-yr-old tractor. He is among thousands of Black farmers denied federal loans in past years. “They took away my ability to provide for my family,” he says of the discrimination. ©Robin Nelson/ZUMA

A News Analysis by John Zippert, Co-Publisher

The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in early 2021 and signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, contained sections 1005 and 1006, which promised debt relief and other assistance to Black, Indigenous and other People Of Color (BIPOC) farmers.

Section 1005 contained provisions for $4 billion of debt relief for all BIPOC direct loan borrowers from USDA’s Farm Services Agency and also relief for BIPOC USDA-FSA borrowers with guaranteed loans with commercial lenders. All farm loan balances as of January 1, 2021 were to be forgiven and farmers could apply for new loans, without penalty. Section 1006 contained another $1 billion for technical assistance to BIPOC farmers; support for 1890, 1994 and Spanish-speaking college and university scholarship programs; and other beneficial provisions.

This relief was to go to 19,000 borrowers, 3,900 Black farmers, as a response to the lack of COVID and other relief given to the nation’s BIPOC farmers by the Trump Administration and also to remediate decades of discriminatory treatment by USDA’s lending agencies.

USDA, in early 2021, began sending out letters to BIPOC farmers advising them of their loan balances at the first of the year and asking them to confirm the amounts to be forgiven and advising other farmers who thought they were eligible for relief to submit their requests as well. Conference calls and zoom calls were held with farm advocates to explain the program.

These letters raised hopes of BIPOC farmers nation-wide that some measure of justice for years of neglect and discrimination was forthcoming from USDA, as part of coronavirus relief. Many farmers began adjusting farm plans, planting schedules, livestock breeding and other steps to respond to the promised debt relief.

White farmers, encouraged by right-wing legal assistance organizations, began suing USDA and its Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, saying the debt relief offered in Section 1005 of the ARPA was unconstitutional and had “discriminated against white farmers”, who had experienced similar economic hardships as BIPOC farmers. One of these right-wing think tanks was headed by Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff and Stephen Miller, Trump’s immigration adviser, who develop the plan to separate children from their parents and place children in cages at border detention centers.

In all, white farmers filed lawsuits in twelve different Federal District Courts from Wisconsin to Texas. Initially a judge in Wisconsin gave the plaintiffs a victory in a temporary restraining order to stop USDA from providing this debt relief to BIPOC farmers. A Federal judge in Jacksonville Florida issued a permanent injunction against the program. The judge in the Fort Worth, Texas case of Miller vs. Vilsack, made the case a class action lawsuit for “all white farmers” in June 2021 and continued the injunction against the program’s implementation.

The hopes of BIPOC farmers for debt relief from USDA were dashed by these “white farmer lawsuits” which were motivated by denying any special or compensatory treatment to Black and other people of color under U. S. laws. Many legal experts advised that this was a preemptive strike against any steps toward reparations for BIPOC people, even in a case where there was clear, overwhelming and documented evidence of decades of past discrimination by the USDA, a federal agency.

The Rural Coalition, Intertribal Agriculture Council, Latino Farmers and Ranchers, and some eighty other groups, assisted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed an amicus brief against the claims of white farmer organization, including affidavits from eight individual BIPOC farmers showing continuing instances of discrimination by USDA over the past five decades until the immediate present. The brief also highlighted the damage to BIPOC farmers by enjoining USDA from distributing the ARPA debt relief assistance, authorized by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, with the help of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, filed a motion to intervene in the Miller vs. Vilsack case to better directly represent the concerns of Black farmers in pushing for the implementation of Section 1005. On December 8, 2021, Federal District Judge, Reed O’Connor, denied the Federation’s motion to intervene and suggested that the organization file an amicus brief on behalf of its farmer members.

When it became clear that these white farmer lawsuits had significant support and might prevail, the Rural Coalition and other advocacy groups approached the Congressional Agriculture Committees and sponsors of Sections 1005 and 1006, for legislative remedies that might override the injunctive impact of the lawsuits blocking needed debt relief for BIPOC farmers.

After consulting with Ag Committee staff and the offices of Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), these Senators, with the House Ag Committee’s concurrence, sponsored a section of the Build Back Better Act, to help provide debt relief for economically distressed farmers and ranchers that offered USDA Farm Service Agency debt relief. These provisions were structured to include all of the BIPOC farmers, who would have received relief under the Section 1005 of the ARPA, with a limitation of $150,000 in total loan relief.

The Build Back Better Act, was passed by the House of Representatives in December and sent to the U. S. Senate, where it has been the subject of negotiations between President Biden and Senators Joe Mansion and Krysten Sinema. The Senate hopes to pass a version of Build Back Better in the new year of 2022, which we hope will include the expanded USFA debt relief provisions. This will restore many of the promised debt relief provisions for BIPOC farmers, albeit a year later.

There are many reasons to support the Build Back Better Act, which includes many of President Biden’s improvements in the nation’s social safety net for working people. The Act also includes long delayed debt relief for BIPOC and other economically challenged USDA borrowers. We urge the Senate to pass this important legislation, which will fulfill the promises made to BIPOC farmers.




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