DENVER — Like many ranchers who struggled during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Liesl Carpenter would love to have her hefty agricultural loans forgiven by the federal government, but there’s just one problem: She’s the wrong race.
As a White person, Ms. Carpenter is ineligible for the American Rescue Plan’s $4 billion program for “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers, which offers to pay up to 120% of the outstanding balances on direct and guaranteed farm loans, including tax liability.
“If we could have had relief from this, it would have been amazing,” said Ms. Carpenter, who has about $250,000 in Farm Service Agency debt on her Flying Heart Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming.
Erasing that loan “would literally change everything we could do in the ag business,” she said during a Wednesday press call. “It would be incredible, but right now the discrimination is just causing it, so we can’t have that. And it needs to stop.”
Ms. Carpenter, 29, filed a lawsuit Monday against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack alleging that the program violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the latest legal challenge to what opponents describe as an open-and-shut case of racial discrimination.
“This is a very poor way of targeting funds by simply saying, ‘Well, we’re going to look at your file, we’re going to determine your race, and we’re going to cut you a check based on your race,’” said William Trachman, associate general counsel for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents Ms. Carpenter.
“That’s obviously objectionable,” Mr. Trachman said. “It should be objectionable to all of us regardless of what skin color we are because of our country’s foundational principle of equal protection.”
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller sued in April to strike down the stimulus package’s racial classifications, as did the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty on behalf of a dozen farmers and ranchers in nine mostly Midwestern states.
“There is a case for loan forgiveness for individuals,” Christopher Baird, a Wisconsin dairy farmer represented by the institute, said in a statement. “But we shouldn’t be looking at the color of someone’s skin and saying this person needs more help or less help based on the color of their skin. That’s just wrong.”
Despite the lawsuits, the USDA is moving forward with the race-based debt relief, publishing its first notice of funding availability May 21, with the “first payments to begin in early June and continue on a rolling basis,” according to the department.
“The American Rescue Plan has made it possible for USDA to deliver historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers beginning in June,” Mr. Vilsack said in a statement. “USDA is recommitting itself to gaining the trust and confidence of America’s farmers and ranchers using a new set of tools provided in the American Rescue Plan to increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs.”
The USDA said Wednesday that the legal challenges were under review.
“We will review these complaints with the Department of Justice and will continue to move forward on debt relief for qualified socially disadvantaged borrowers under the American Rescue Plan,” the department said in an email.
Even if the program loses in court, however, the USDA could still notch a political win by rewriting the narrative on a legacy of distrust over its acknowledged history of racial bias against Black farmers.
Since 1999, the department has allocated more than $2 billion to settle class-action claims of discriminatory lending practices, known as the Pigford cases, while many Black farmers say they are still waiting for compensation under the settlement.
At a March hearing, House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott argued that the USDA is still plagued by systemic racism and that the Pigford settlements were “too little, too late for the Black farmers who lost their farms and livelihoods due to longstanding, systemic discrimination.”
Mr. Vilsack vowed at the hearing to “do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers may exist at the Department of Agriculture.”
John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, pointed out that “debt forgiveness is not a new issue.”
“I was supposed to get debt relief from my own settlement in 1997, and the liens were still on my farm in 2020,” Mr. Boyd told The Washington Times. “That’s the kind of discrimination we’ve been going through, and USDA says, ‘Oh, it’s just a mistake, it’s just an oversight.’”
As for the latest lawsuits, Mr. Boyd, who farms 1,400 acres in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, said “nobody here is against White farmers getting anything.”
“What I’m saying is we’ve got to get ours, too, and we’ve been left out for decades. That’s what I’m saying here,” Mr. Boyd said. “I’m not against White farmers getting anything. If they qualify for the program, they should get it, and guess what, if I qualify for that very same program, I should get it, too.”
Others argue that White farmers already receive the lion’s share of USDA aid. The Land and Loss Reparations Project reported in February that as of October, 97% of the $9.2 billion from the 2020 USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program had gone to White farmers, as shown on EWG.
Then again, the vast majority of farmers are White. The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture in 2017 found that 95.4% of farm producers were White, while 1.3% were Black, 3% were Hispanic, 0.6% were Asian, and 1.7% were Native American/Alaska Native.
Congress has taken notice. Last month, Republican Reps. Burgess Owens of Utah and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin introduced legislation to bar the USDA from discriminating or providing preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex and other characteristics.
In Wyoming, Ms. Carpenter said she inherited a mound of debt from her grandparents, which is hardly unusual in the agriculture business — “we’re all faced with terrible debt,” she said — forcing her to take out an FSA loan nine years ago, when she was 20, to save the ranch.
She and her husband, Tim, run more than 500 head of cattle on 2,400 acres in the Big Laramie Valley. The region is mired in a drought, which could force them to sell off some of their herd.
The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation worse by throwing market uncertainty into the mix.
“Last year with COVID, it literally took the bottom out of our market,” Ms. Carpenter said. “We had no idea if our cattle, our hay or anything was going to be worth anything. It was utterly terrifying. I was a very new mom and had no idea if my son was going to have a meal because the market was so volatile.”
Mr. Trachman, the attorney, said the USDA loan-forgiveness program doesn’t require recipients to prove that they struggled financially during the pandemic or suffered racial discrimination.
“This is a windfall for a number of farmers and ranchers who may have never actually suffered discrimination and who may have never suffered individually Covid-19 devastation,” he said. “On the other hand, it doesn’t cover many farmers and ranchers who were affected by COVID-19, like our client.”
He urged the department to reconsider efforts to end racism by perpetuating it with the loan program.
“Making skin color the basis of a government benefit is not only unconstitutional, it is also morally wrong,” he said. “One simply cannot promote racial justice by perpetuating racial injustice. The way to end discrimination is to stop discriminating.”