A federal judge in Wisconsin has temporarily halted a government program designed to help chronically disadvantaged farmers of color repay their loans — or forgive their debt altogether.
Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “a temporary restraining order was handed down Thursday afternoon [June 10] by Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin’s Eastern District, in response to a lawsuit filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) in April.”
According to Schulte, the lawsuit claims “the Biden administration used an unconstitutional program in an effort to end systemic racism and should make the relief available to white farmers, too.”
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL, said in a statement, “the Court recognized that the federal government’s plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm. The Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law.”
Schulte reported that “the group is representing 12 farmers, two of whom live in Wisconsin. Calumet County dairy farmer Adam Faust, who farms with both legs amputated after being born with spina bifida, and Christopher Baird, who owns a dairy farm near Ferryville in Crawford County.” The case also includes farmers from Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Oregon and Kentucky.
In the lawsuit, Faust alleges that when the government initiated the relief program, there were no existing economic conditions “hurt[ing] any one race more than another” in agriculture, saying “there should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race.”
Because race discrimination is illegal under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government “must prove that its discriminatory benefit is narrowly tailored and serves a compelling government interest.”
The plaintiffs in the case also specifically ask that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, “not consider race” when determining who the government ultimately decides to award relief funds to.
When the loan forgiveness program was created earlier this year as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the Biden administration intended for it to help socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. As originally written, the program was supposed to pay “up to 120% of direct or guaranteed farm loan balances for producers who are Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino and Asian American or Pacific Islander.”
“Officials said that they recognized those groups of farmers and ranchers faced systemic discrimination, resulting in cumulative effects that have led to a substantial loss in the number of socially disadvantaged producers, reduced the amount of farmland they control and contributed to a cycle of debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, among other consequences,” Schulte reported.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continued throughout 2020 and 2021, government officials said these “socially disadvantaged communities” also experienced higher rates of infections, hospitalizations, death, loss of property and economic hurt.
The USDA has previously estimated that of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States today, only 45,000 are Black. One century ago, that number was estimated to be over a million but ongoing racism, discrimination and bias in rural communities slowly forced Black farmers out of the industry and into more urban areas where they were traditionally more accepted and welcomed.
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