Black farmers disappointed by court ruling halting federal debt relief program

May 4, 2021 Byromville - Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters at JibbÕs Vineyard in Byromville on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
May 4, 2021 Byromville - Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters at JibbÕs Vineyard in Byromville on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Black farmers in Georgia had already begun completing paperwork to qualify for a new debt relief program for “socially disadvantaged” producers when a federal judge ruled the program was potentially unconstitutional and paused it indefinitely.

Tammy Harris, an advocate for farmers who also operates an agritourism business in Heard County, said the $4 billion loan forgiveness program was supposed to address long-standing complaints by farmers of color about unequal access to U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Instead, a lawsuit filed by white farmers claiming the program itself was discriminatory led a judge to issue a temporary restraining order before a single dime had been distributed.

“It was a long time coming, and then lo and behold the wool is pulled from under you again,” Harris said. “So there is disappointment.”

The debt relief program would have allowed landowners of Black, Latino, Native American, Asian American or Pacific Island descent to qualify to have their USDA or USDA-backed loan balances paid off. Nestled within the larger American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package that became law in March, it had been heralded as a sign that President Joe Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress were serious about addressing systemic inequality.

The provision was championed by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee and has made rural issues a focus of his office. Georgia U.S. Reps. David Scott, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and Sanford Bishop, who chairs the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, also helped ensure the program was funded in the coronavirus bill.

Warnock, Scott and Bishop are all Black men. They pointed to statistics such as the dwindling number of Black farmers in America, down from around 900,000 in the 1920s to fewer than 50,000 today — less than 2% of all producers. In 2017, Black farmers received $1 in federal subsidies for every $162 received by white farmers.

During last year’s first round of coronavirus relief, the $2 trillion CARES Act, 95% of the money spent purchasing meat, dairy and produce to be included in food boxes distributed to needy families ended up going to white farmers. The total allocated was $6 billion.

Warnock, who traveled to the South Georgia town of Byromville in May to talk up the debt relief program, said he saw the wariness during his visit. Farmers told him that the USDA had not kept its promises over the years, even after settling a series of discrimination lawsuits in the 1990s that are known as the Pigford cases.

“Farmers who, time and time again, had been disappointed when they thought relief might be on the way,” Warnock said recently. “Many of them experienced the disappointment of the Pigford settlement, and I think there is concern out there that here we go again.”

Many Republican lawmakers are critical of the program, and GOP senators tried to pass an amendment to have it removed from the coronavirus bill before it was approved. U.S. Rep. Austin Scott said he dislikes the mechanics of the program overall because it doesn’t require proof of past discrimination, and he believes the race factor makes it unconstitutional.

“It’s a very dangerous precedent to set that just based on the color of somebody’s skin or their ethnicity, then all of a sudden their debts are going to be forgiven,” the Tifton Republican said recently.

The April challenge to the debt relief program was filed on behalf of a group of 12 white farmers by a conservative law firm that specializes in challenging anti-racism programs called the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

The lawsuit alleged that the initiative is unconstitutional because race is used as a criterion to determine eligibility. U.S. District Judge William Griesbach in Milwaukee issued a temporary restraining order earlier this month, saying the plaintiffs are likely to prevail in trial and would be harmed if he allowed the debt relief distribution to begin while the case was pending.

A second case filed in May on behalf of a white farmer in Florida made similar arguments. U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard decided Wednesday to issue a preliminary injunction against the debt relief program, which is considered more enduring than a temporary restraining order. Suits are also pending in Texas and Illinois. These three cases are all represented by attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation, another conservative firm that says its mission is to fight back against government overreach.

Scott praised the earlier court ruling. He said he believes that there are better ways to help farmers of color, such as through partnerships with historically black colleges and universities like Fort Valley State in Middle Georgia. And he believes those farmers who were found to have been discriminated against, such as the plaintiffs in the Pigford lawsuits, should get a chance for new hearings to determine what they are still owed.

Warnock said he received assurances from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the USDA will not abandon the program. And he said there is other money in the coronavirus bill that is not affected by the ruling, such as $1 billion that can be used for technical assistance and training to disadvantaged farmers, plus the creation of a USDA Office of Equity.

“First of all, the relief itself is based in years of well-documented discrimination at the hands of the USDA — well-documented and years long,” he said. “Second of all, we intend to defend it.”

There is no timeline for the judge’s next ruling. A coalition of nonprofits and interest groups, including the National Black Farmers Association, the Rural Coalition and the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association, have filed amicus briefs or asked to intervene in support of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Harris said, Black farmers have been meeting to determine the ramifications of the temporary restraining order and discuss a path forward.

“We were left out of that first round when Trump was in office,” Harris said. “This time it’s like this is a long overdue thing; this is righting what was a wrong.”

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