Controversy follows changes to federal debt relief program for farmers of color

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A federal debt relief program funded by the American Rescue Plan was originally intended to address decades of discrimination against farmers of color by the USDA. But the latest version expands the pool of eligible people to potentially include white farmers who claim other forms of discrimination.

The climate bill President Joe Biden recently signed into law replaces that agenda with one that might hold up better in court because it removes references to race.

For the past year and a half, many farmers of color have been in a financial bind. They were promised $4 billion in debt relief that never came because it was blocked in court with white farmers claiming the program discriminated against them.

“Well, it’s been hard waiting for help,” said John Boyd, who heads the National Black Farmers Association. He said he was unhappy with the new program, which no longer earmarks relief money specifically for farmers of color.

“The language is not good for black farmers. That’s too broad a definition,” he said. From now on, any farmer who claims to have been the victim of any form of discrimination or financial hardship can apply for one-time aid.

“Distressed, it could be any farmer, age discrimination, white women who feel discriminated against, and even white farmers,” Boyd said.

That leaves less for farmers of color who have borne the brunt of federal loan discrimination.

“The loss of land between 1920 and 1997 was worth an estimated $359 billion, said economist Dania Francis of the University of Massachusetts Boston, who studies the impacts of this discrimination on black farmland ownership.” These are serious material consequences for these black farmers.”

The new relief program should hold up better in court “because race has been taken out of politics,” says Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska School of Law. “And this Supreme Court has made it clear that it does not endorse racial preferences,” signaling a reluctance that extends even to addressing past discriminatory practices of federal programs.

But Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, who runs the Native American Agriculture Fund, is willing to compromise because she says growers of color need something to help them recover from pandemic-related losses.

“We’ve added layers of hardship since COVID started to include inflation,” she said. “Producers need help. Some of them won’t make it out unless we act now,” amid rising interest rates and transportation costs and weather disasters.

Stanger-McLaughlin said she would rather have a legally sound program that provides some relief than a more targeted program that spends years in court to be struck down.

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