Debt relief payments to minority farmers from the Agriculture Department are on hold after a federal judge granted a restraining order in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the program. 

"We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers. When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress," the department said in a statement. 

Under the American Rescue Plan enacted in March, minority farmers who hold direct or guaranteed USDA loans are eligible worth 120% of the indebtedness. The additional 20% was intended to pay off taxes that would be due on the debt relief. In May, USDA began sending offer letters to farmers holding direct loans. 

An official said that eligible borrowers should continue to submit their paperwork while the case is proceeding. 

"The intent of the judge’s order is clear in that it stops USDA from making payments (20% as well as the debt payoffs) under authority of Section 1005 of the ARP," the official said. 

"Borrowers should continue to submit paperwork (signed offer letters) and USDA will continue to accept these letters and process them so that when the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress."

The decision comes in a case filed in April by five white farmers, including Adam Faust, a double amputee. U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, an appointee of President George W. Bush, issued the temporary restraining order on Thursday.

Interested in more news on farm programs, trade and rural issues? Sign up for a four-week free trial to Agri-Pulse. You’ll receive our content - absolutely free - during the trial period.

The judge "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," said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is representing the farmers. 

"The Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law. We look forward to continuing this litigation but urge the administration to change course now.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller filed a class-action lawsuit in Texas in April; Miller filed the suit as a private citizen, not in his official capacity.

 For more news, go to