Tennessee cowboy drinks morning cup of coffee. The term cow boy came from enslaved Black and Native ranchers who handled cattle. The term "boy" was assigned to men as a derogatory title. Today, cowboy is an oft-used and honored designation. Photo credit: Bradley Pisney

White farmers upset over Feds’ debt relief program, sues over Black farmers

A preliminary injunction ordered in federal court will hamper a large part of the Biden Administration’s stimulus relief package.

The Department of Agriculture has earmarked an estimated $4 billion dollars of loan forgiveness aid in the American Rescue Plan bill that is now in question. In Florida, U.S. district judge, Marcia Morales Howard, halted payments in a loan forgiveness program assisting farmers of color, as part of an early decision in a lawsuit filed by Jennings city resident, Scott Wynn.f. 

Represented by lawyers from the Pacific Legal Foundation, Wynn, a white farmer who harvests sweet potatoes and corn, and raises cattle, said he faced financial hardship during the pandemic that included his inability to repay loans. But, he believes the debt relief program has discriminated against him. According to his complaint, he filed the lawsuit because he could not apply for aid due to him being white; thus, he asserts that  this makes the bill unconstitutional based on race. 

In the last stimulus package addressing recovery from the U.S. shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, funds were set-aside for Black, Native/Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander farmers who have acquired agricultural debt. The relief aid ensured that loan forgiveness would occur, but it also went to these groups of farmers because they have been historically disenfranchised growers. Chief among them, Black farmers who carry a long history of being largely shut out of the agricultural sector. The provision also provided funds for grants, training, and educational endeavors. 

Decisions, decisions

In her decision granting a preliminary injunction, Judge Howard stated, “Congress also must heed its obligation to do away with governmentally imposed discrimination based on race. It appears that in adopting Section 1005’s strict race-based debt relief remedy Congress moved with great speed to address the history of discrimination, but did not move with great care.”

The judge stated that the Agriculture Department could continue to prepare to deliver the debt relief until the program is found to be “constitutionally permissible.” 

Prior to Wynn’s lawsuit, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit challenging the program on behalf of 12 white farmers, two of whom are from Wisconsin. Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin’s Eastern District issued a temporary hold on the debt relief program. That restraining order will be reconsidered and possibly reversed this month, when a new ruling is expected. However, the nationwide injunction by Judge Howard will still keep the debt relief program on hold in the near future.

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Attorney Manu Elloie of Riverside California stated, “there should be an equal share, equal protections under the law for farmers. And that federal or state law has to pass strict legal scrutiny if it is based on race.” 

Elloie continued, “When there is an issue that is based on race, the state has to prove a state interest and remedy to a past discrimination and there was a valid unfairness. In order to equalize the funds . . . they have to explain, legally, the rationale.”

U.S. Black farmers have enjoyed funds from relief as part of a greater form of reparations for those of them  who have long been a target of great discrimination and historic racial oppression. In the past century, Black farmers have lost over 12 million acres of farmland. Racism, discriminatory banking practices, and governmental policies have helped prevent access to farmland.

The seeds that were sown

Deep Roots Farm at Uptown Farmers Market in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo credit: Deep Roots Facebook page

“Black farmers have been looking for justice for a very long time. I am happy about the loan forgiveness program,” said farmer and land owner, Cherie Jzar of Deep Roots CPS Farm in Charlotte. “In the past, Black farmers have been shut out of the equipment support, other federal programs and loans.” 

Although farm ownership rates have declined since the early 1970’s, farming over the last century has seen a near-Black erasure. One hundred years ago, 17 percent of farmers were Black. Today, the number is about  1.3 percent, with ownership plummeting to less than one  percent of the farmland. On average, Black farmers make less than $40,000 a year, whereas white farmers make over $190,000 a year.  

In the last debt relief program, white farmers received almost all of the $9.7 billion dollars in pandemic relief. Black farmers received less than 1 percent of the funds. Long-time land steward, Christoper Jaraeu of Louisiana stated, “The root of the problem is in the discussion of loans, I don‘t encourage farmers to acquire debt to farm. I think that they should remove debt from all farmers up to a certain income level [because] . . . taking out a loan is not a good idea.” 

Jareau adds, “We need to care for our African American farmers because they have been marginalized. Greater conversation of how minority farmers have less access and resources and how the government will give loans to white farmers but not to black farmers. I encourage young black farmers to look outside the loan system.”

April Jones founded Pinehurst Farmers Market located in Columbia, S.C. She is an advocate for her community in the food justice and food sovereignty movement, and is passionate about community, gardens, and farmer markets.

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