Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack ripped into lawsuits challenging debt relief for minority producers in remarks released Wednesday, asking what those who are challenging the payments did to address previous instances of discrimination the program is meant to address.

The debt relief — 120% of a socially-disadvantaged producers direct and guaranteed loan debt — has been a hot-button issue since it was first proposed and passed in a coronavirus relief measure. Several lawsuits — Vilsack counted five — have been filed over the program, and a judge in Wisconsin ordered USDA last week to halt any payments to producers.

In remarks that were recorded June 7 and shown Wednesday at a Biotechnology Innovation Organization event, Vilsack said those lawsuits were “ironically” claiming the relief was discriminatory “because they haven’t had the advantage of having debt relief like Black farmers have had.

“It’s a wonder where those farmers were over the last 100 years when their Black counterparts were being discriminated against, and didn’t hear a peep from white farmers about how unfortunate that circumstance was,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack defended the merits of the relief, saying it was meant to address comprehensive impacts of previous discrimination.

“Now, we are seeing white farmers stepping up and asking why they’re not included in this program. Well, it’s pretty clear why they’re not included. Because they’ve had the full access of all of the programs for the last 100 years,” he said.

“Those who were Black, those who were Hispanic, those who were Native American, those who are Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, did not have the full benefit, and the result is the system makes it very difficult for them ever to close that gap, ever to have a fair shot.”

USDA is still working on the debt relief provisions, a spokesperson confirmed last week, and said interested producers should continue the application process despite a temporary restraining order on making payments. Vilsack pointed out USDA was in the process of offering notification to producers “of the level of debt that’s being forgiven.” In addition to existing debt, USDA will also pay an addition 20% of a producer’s debt to cover taxes associated with the relief. Once a producer confirms the amount — if the program is allowed to continue — USDA can then offer the relief.

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Zach Ducheneaux, the administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency, told Agri-Pulse Wednesday the department “has offer letters going out every day now” and “we’re going to continue on as though our case will prevail.” He said four offer letters were returned before the judge’s action to halt payments.

USDA separately on Wednesday announced it was soliciting public comment “on its efforts to advance racial justice and equity across the Department.” In a release, USDA said the feedback from public comments and additional listening sessions “will aid in identifying barriers that people of color, underserved communities, and others may face in obtaining information on USDA programs and services, engaging with USDA staff, and accessing, enrolling, and participating in programs and services including USDA grant, loan, and other financial assistance programs.”

Philip Brasher contributed to this report. 

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