Minority farmers sue government over scrapped plan to provide $5 billion in aid

On Wednesday, a line of colored farmers stood outside the US capitol demanding their 40 acres and a mule. The group, which included prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, announced it is filing a class action lawsuit against the US government alleging it breached its contract with disadvantaged farmers under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Originally, under the law passed last year, the federal government said it would award $5 billion to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who are black, Indian, Hispanic, Alaska Native, Asian American or Pacific Islander. Specifically, section 1005 of the legislation stated: “The Secretary shall make a payment in an amount up to 120 percent of the outstanding debt for each socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher beginning January 1, 2021.”

John Wesley Boyd Jr., center

Founder and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association John Boyd Jr., center, speaks to news media about the filing of a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging that it has breached its contract with disadvantaged farmers under the U.S. bailout law. (Susan Walsh/AP)

John Boyd Jr., who has been a farmer for more than 40 years, said Wednesday that the promises in the US bailout law gave farmers hope and finally addressed the racial injustices black farmers have experienced for decades.

But when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) into law in August, the legislation repealed Section 1005 of ARPA, which directly affects farmers of color.

In a statement Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture said it was prepared to provide funding to farmers of color under the US bailout law, but court challenges to the program prevented the government from making the payments.

“USDA strongly supported the ARPA Section 1005 program and was ready to make payments to direct borrowers. However, the $5 billion intended to help farmers was frozen by three nationwide injunctions that prevented USDA from getting payments out of the door. The government vigorously defended this program in court, but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion made available under ARPA remained frozen. This lawsuit likely would not have been resolved for years, said Marissa Perry, press secretary for the Department of Agriculture , to Yahoo News.

Mule in hand Wednesday, Boyd said, “This fight is about historic losses for black farmers. I got my mule. I’m looking for my 40 acres.” The phrase “40 acres and a mule” originated after the Civil War, when former slaves were promised land that most of them never received.

John Boyd Jr.

Boyd on his farm in Boydton, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

Now farmers of color say history is repeating itself. “They went from being able to get money, where they had to own their farm and pay their taxes, to the Inflation Reduction Act, where they now have to have additional interest, additional fees, and they are going to owe money. It doesn’t add up, America,” Crump said at the press conference.

The US bailout had originally given nearly 5 billion to socially disadvantaged farmers to completely repay their USDA loans. The legislation also provided an additional 20% of the loan to cover taxes.

In response, white farmers in the Midwest filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that ARPA was discriminatory because they could not participate in it. The plaintiffs in the case included farmers from Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Ohio, according to ABC News.

“Was [the] claimants eligible for the loan forgiveness benefit, they would have the opportunity to make additional investments in their property, expand their farms, purchase equipment and supplies, and otherwise support their families and communities,” the lawsuit states. “Because [the] plaintiffs are unable to apply for the program themselves solely because of their race, have been denied the equal protection of the law, and have therefore suffered harm.”

As a result, farmers of color never received the funds from ARPA, and the Inflation Reduction Act allows any race that can prove they have been discriminated against to receive funding. The Department of Agriculture says the new legislation is more effective than ARPA.

Late.  Sherrod Brown

Late. Sherrod Brown from Ohio. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“The Inflation Reduction Act—thanks to the leadership of Sens. Booker, Warnock, Stabenow, Manchin and Schumer—moved to repeal those provisions and create something new. Congress provided $3.1 billion that will allow the USDA to be able to work with distressed borrowers to provide assistance with their farm debt in new and more effective ways to help keep borrowers on the land as much as possible, stay in agriculture and maintain eligibility for future assistance.”

“Additionally, Congress appropriated $2.2 billion to provide additional financial assistance to those farmers who have been discriminated against by USDA’s farm loan programs. We are moving aggressively to implement these provisions,” Perry explained.

While farmers of color have been disadvantaged for decades, the new debt relief does not focus exclusively on black, Indian, Hispanic, Alaska Native, Asian American and Pacific Islander farmers.

“They believed the promises of the US government. They took Congress and the administration at their word and expected the government to pay their debt as the USDA promised in writing. Instead, it was 40 acres and a mule all over again, 150 years later – broken promises, that condemned generations of black farmers to become sharecroppers and robbed black families of billions in intergenerational wealth,” Crump said.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, right

Attorney Benjamin Crump, right, speaks at the news conference Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The farmers at the press conference Wednesday said they depended on the funds from ARPA to avoid foreclosure of their land. Boyd said he owns a 1,500-acre farm and grows soybeans, corn, wheat, hemp and other products.

The number of black farmers has declined precipitously since 1920, when farmers of color made up more than 14 percent of farmers in the United States; now there is only 1.4 percent, according to data analysis from the consulting firm McKinsey. The firm also found that there are several factors that have contributed to the decline of black-owned farms, including federal programs and policies that exclude blacks from land purchases.

The lack of immediate help has left minority farmers angry and frustrated, and they say help is urgently needed. “It pains me to say that I stand here today, with my fellow farmers who are facing extinction. We face extinction while Congress and other political leaders play games with our lives,” Boyd said.

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