Five white farmers are claiming the $4 billion debt forgiveness program being implemented by USDA is unconstitutional, in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Wisconsin.

The debt forgiveness plan offers 120% relief for direct and guaranteed loans held by “socially disadvantaged” farmers, including Black/African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian American or Pacific Islander. The additional 20% is to be used to pay off taxes farmers would owe on the debt relief payments.

The lawsuit is at least the second to be filed alleging constitutional problems with the program. Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller filed a class-action lawsuit in Texas earlier this week.

USDA and congressional Democrats have defended the language.

“USDA recognizes that socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have faced systemic discrimination with cumulative effects that have, among other consequences, 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 that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of USDA's Farm Service Agency, says on a government webpage explaining the program.

But in the lawsuit, the producers say such language is discriminatory. 

“There is a case for loan forgiveness for individuals,” said Christopher Baird, who owns a dairy farm near Ferryville in Crawford County, Wisconsin, where he milks over 50 Jersey cows and farms about 80 acres of pasture. He has three direct loans with FSA. “But we shouldn’t be looking at the color of someone’s skin and saying this person needs more help or less help based on the color of their skin. That’s just wrong.”

The farmers are represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which was founded in 2011 and calls itself “the most active and influential free-market policy organization in the state of Wisconsin.”

The defendants are Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and Ducheneaux.

“While defendants’ public statements about (the forgiveness) describe their generalized goal of ending ‘systemic racism,’ such broad goals do not override the constitutional ban on race discrimination,” the complaint says.

To determine eligibility for the loan-forgiveness provision, the complaint says USDA will use form AD-2047, which says USDA and its agencies “are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity (including gender expression), sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, family/parental status, income derived from a public assistance program, political beliefs, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity, in any program or activity conducted or funded by USDA (not all bases apply to all programs).”

“Were plaintiffs 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 local communities,” the complaint says. “Because Plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm.”

In response to Miller’s lawsuit, USDA said it was “reviewing the complaint and working with the Department of Justice,” during which time it would continue to implement the debt relief plan.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said Friday at the North American Agricultural Journalists conference that he does not believe the Miller lawsuit has merit, “and that the USDA should move forward with implementing these programs as quickly as possible with the assistance that Congress provided.”

In addition to Baird, WILL said the plaintiffs include:

  • Adam Faust, who owns a dairy farm in Calumet County, near Chilton, Wis.
  • Jonathan Stevens, who owns Maple Grove Farms near Rock Creek, Minn., where he “raises about 25 beef cattle and grows corn, soybeans, and other crops on about 700 acres.”
  • Jay Slaba, who “raises about 350 head of beef cattle and farms about 1,000 acres of corn and other crops in northwest South Dakota.”
  • Joseph Schmitz, whofarms approximately 50 acres of corn and soybeans in western Ohio.”

The case was assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge William C. Griesbach.

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