FARGO — Farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota have joined a group from across the U.S. alleging in lawsuits that a federal COVID-19 relief program for "socially disadvantaged" farmers discriminates based on race.
Since late April, groups of white farmers have filed federal lawsuits in multiple states targeting around $4 billion in U.S. Department of Agriculture loan assistance for Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American farmers. The aid is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress earlier in 2021.
In cases filed in Texas, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Florida, Illinois and other states, the white farmers argue that the loan forgiveness program violates white farmers' constitutional rights.
"Their concern is the inequality and discrimination against them just on the basis of their race or skin color,” said Glen Roper, lead attorney for the case filed in North Dakota.
Plaintiffs in the Minnesota and North Dakota cases include farmers from Ellendale and Pembina County, N.D., and Roseau County, Minn. None of the farmers in the North Dakota case responded to requests for comment for this story.
The lawsuits naming Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack and the Farm Service Agency seek to stop loan assistance payments until the federal government addresses allegations of discrimination in the program.
In other earlier cases, judges have already issued injunctions temporarily halting payments to farmers, said Daniel Lennington, deputy counsel and lead attorney for the lawsuit filed in Wisconsin U.S. District Court.
Congress approved the $4 billion in aid for socially disadvantaged farmers with their debt repayments and support for grants, training, education, and other forms of assistance.
The law provides funding to address “longstanding racial equity issues within the department and across agriculture,” Vilsack said in March in written testimony to Congress.
A second defendant in the North Dakota lawsuit, Zach Ducheneaux, administrator for the Farm Service Agency, is also quoted after he posted online that the law is an attempt to address “historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged producers.”
Roper said the courts have two options that will solve the issue.
"They either include everyone in this program or strike down the entire program and say if Congress wants some forgiveness, they’ve got to go back to the drawing board and do it in a race-neutral way,” he said.
“Certainly, if our clients got their loans forgiven, that would give them a monetary benefit, but that’s not their goal so much as making sure there is equal treatment,” Roper said.
Jonathan Stevens, a fifth-generation farmer and cattle rancher who owns Maple Grove Farms near Rock Creek in eastern Minnesota, said he signed on to the Wisconsin lawsuit because he felt discriminated against by the program.
“All this critical race theory and PC stuff going on, it’s just gone too far,” Stevens said.
Some advocates, such as Ducheneaux, say the payments are reparations for historical mistreatment of Black farmers by the government.