Judge halts billions in debt relief for farmers of color as conservative group for White farmers sue

Washington Post
By Andrea Salcedo and Laura Reiley –

In the months since Congress included around $4 billion in the latest stimulus bill to forgive loans for Black and other minority farmers, thousands of them have been pushing to finally see the money. The Department of Agriculture promised to start paying for loans this month.

But now, that relief is again on hold thanks to a lawsuit brought by a conservative group on behalf of White farmers, who argue the program is unconstitutional because it discriminates against them.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Wisconsin sided with the plaintiffs and issued a temporary restraining order on the program.

“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,” Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which filed the lawsuit, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Department of Agriculture officials vow to defend the effort in the courts.

“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,” Matt Herrrick, USDA director of communications, told The Washington Post. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”

USDA officials are saying borrowers can continue submitting paperwork and that currently 17,000 farmers of color qualify for this assistance.

The assistance program, which was passed by the Senate in March as part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus relief package, sought to correct long-standing disadvantages faced by Black, Latino, and other minority farmers in getting loans from banks and the government. As covid-19 disproportionately affected communities of color, those groups also had a more difficult time accessing relief programs due to systemic racism and other issues, the Biden administration argued.

“Over the last 100 years, policies were implemented that specifically twisted in a way that disadvantaged socially disadvantaged producers,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. “There’s no better example of that than the covid relief efforts. Billions of dollars went to White farmers, because the system is structured in a way that gives them significant advantages.”

Relief bill is most significant legislation for Black farmers since Civil Rights Act, experts say

When the package passed, advocates told The Post that it was a major step toward correcting a century of mistreatment of Black farmers, with some describing it as reparations for a long history of racial oppression.

“This is the most significant piece of legislation with respect to the arc of Black land ownership in this country,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which provides legal representation to Black farmers.

But the program, which was opposed by all 49 GOP senators, faced quick legal challenges. In April, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative group based in Milwaukee, sued on behalf of five White farmers and ranchers, including Adam Faust, a double amputee and the owner of a dairy farm near Chilton, Wis. (The suit has since grown to include 12 farmers as plaintiffs.)

“There should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race,” Faust told the Journal Sentinel after joining the suit.

USDA to start debt forgiveness and payouts to some 13,000 Black, Hispanic and other minority farmers in June

White farmers in other regions of the country have also sued against the debt relief program.

In April, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller formed the America First Legal Foundation to sue in Texas on behalf on behalf of Sid Miller, a White farmer who is also the Texas agriculture commissioner. The lawsuit claimed that the USDA program “disrupts our common progress toward becoming a more perfect union.”

The Wisconsin group’s lawsuit noted that the White farmers could make additional investments in their property, expand their farms, and purchase equipment and supplies if they were eligible for the loan forgiveness benefit.

“Because plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program due solely to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm,” according to the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin’s Eastern District, who was appointed by George W. Bush, issued the temporary restraining order.

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

Government requires more fruits, veggies for school lunches

Today the government is releasing new nutrition standards for school meals that spell out dramatic changes, including slashing sodium, limiting calories and offering students a wider variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. These changes will raise the nutrition standards for meals for the first time in more than 15 years.

“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement. She is announcing the new standards today along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack..

Vilsack says this is a historic opportunity “to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs.”

The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of children in the USA are overweight or obese. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools. The rules released today apply to school meals; regulations for other foods such those served in à la carte lines, vending machines and stores will come later.

The changes are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and almost 11 million who eat breakfast.

Farm Bill Programs Available

USDA Farm Service Agency News Release

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, is offering technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to develop, install and implement authorized conservation practices. To receive assistance, the farmer or rancher must be in control of the land where practices will be applied, have an agricultural income of at least $1,000 per year and be willing to implement conservation practices of the duration of the contract and maintain such practices.

The following programs assist operators in implementing conservation practices:
• EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program)
• WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program)
• AMA (Agricultural Management Assistance)
• WRP (Wetlands Reserve Program)
• GRP (Grassland Reserve Program)
• CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program)

For a full description of program eligibility, visit pia.nrcs.usda.gov/programs, or contact the Ho`olehua Field Office at 4101 Maunaloa Hwy or 567-6868 ext. 105.

Farm Bill Programs Available | Molokai Dispatch

Rural Hawaii to be Heard

Hawaii Rural Development Council News Release

As a part of a nation-wide movement, a rural community-improvement council is asking Molokai’s mana`o for how to increase economic opportunities.

The Hawaii Rural Development Council (HRDC) seeks your input, concerns, success stories, and ideas on issues related to rural communities in Hawaii. State Rural Development Councils nationwide are gathering input to be presented to Partners for Rural America and the USDA. This is an opportunity for Hawaii to voice our concerns and successes locally to build on a national action plan to promote enhance rural development strategies.

USDA Blog » Biomass and Biofuel – What’s in it for Hawaii’s Agriculture?

Hawaii and the Pacific Basin

The dwindling global supply of fossil fuels and the resulting escalation in prices has set the stage for entry of commercial biofuel produced from biomass, including co-products and bi-products. This transition in the energy sector’s feed stocks offers Hawaii a unique opportunity to locally produce biofuel from locally produced biomass feed stocks, and ultimately support the stabilization of the state’s energy resources; increase the local circulation of energy dollars; and further under gird Hawaii’s agricultural industry.

In October 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans for a “Great Green Fleet” to demonstrate that Navy and Marine Corps ships and aircraft could operate utilizing non-fossil fuels by year 2016. In January, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Secretary Mabus to support the biomass and biofuel development that would ultimately fuel the Green Fleet. Hawaii was selected as a pilot region, with USDA providing the “push” through research and business incentives and the Navy making the “pull” with plans for purchase of biofuel from locally produced biomass.

Tri-Isle RC&D – About – Tri-Isle

In 1962, Congress established a unique program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that empowered rural communities to improve themselves while protecting and developing their natural resources. Local councils would provide direction, planning, coordination, and implementation of specific projects within their boundaries.

The focus on local direction and control has made Resource Conservation and Development one of the most successful rural development programs of the Federal Government. To date, three hundred eighty five RC&D areas have been authorized throughout the Country. Over 70,000 projects have been adopted nationwide since 1964, and more than 50,000 have been completed.

Hawaii’s four RC&Ds, cover all the major Islands. Through the leadership of Maui County’s five Soil and Water Conservation Districts and with assistance from the Soil Conservation Service, Tri-Isle RC&D Council, Inc., the oldest of the Hawaii RC&D areas, was established in 1970.

The Tri-Isle Council meets on a quarterly basis and is made up of a 15 member Board of Directors who bring a variety of backgrounds and professional expertise to the organization. The office staff includes the Executive Director, NRCS Coordinator, Administrative Assistant and Financial Assistant. The Council membership includes:

  • 5 members from Maui County’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts
  • 2 members from County Departments
  • 8 at-large members from the community

    RC&D provides a mechanism for local residents to work together and actively solve economic, environmental, and agricultural problems. We help utilize the abilities, knowledge and energy of local volunteers to get projects done. Interested groups may approach Tri-Isle for project sponsorship by submitting an application.

  • Drought puts Big Isle and Maui on federal disaster list – Hawaii News – Starbulletin.com


    By Helen Altonn

    POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 12, 2009

    Hawaii and Maui counties have been designated primary natural disaster areas because of losses caused by drought this year, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced.

    "President Obama and I understand these conditions caused severe damage to these areas and serious harm to farms in Hawaii, and we want to help," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "This action will provide help to hundreds of farmers who suffered significant production losses to warm season grasses."

    Some parts of Hawaii had a lot of rain the past month, but it fell mainly in places that do not have serious drought conditions, says Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist at the Honolulu Forecast Office.


    Hawaii County
    » Extreme drought: South Kohala
    » Severe drought: Kau, North and South Kona
    » Moderate drought: Lower Kona slopes (Honaunau to Kalaoa)

    Maui County
    » Severe drought: Central and West Maui, West Molokai
    » Moderate drought: East Molokai, Lanai

    Source: National Weather Service

    Portions of the Big Island did not receive much rain, and they are still hurting from drought, said the National Weather Service meteorologist.

    Hawaii’s wet season is from October through April, but Kodama and Jim Weyman, meteorologist-in-charge of the Honolulu Forecast Office, said in October it would be drier-than-normal from mid-December through April because of El Nino conditions.

    An El Nino is a weather phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific with unusually warm sea surface temperatures that affect climate worldwide.

    The Big Island’s South Kohala district had the sixth consecutive month of extreme drought in November, Kodama said. Some improvement occurred with rain in the early part of the month — from extreme drought to severe drought, he said.

    Then it got windy, and farm agents said the winds "dried things out quick," Kodama said.

    That window of opportunity to pull out of the drought is closing, he said.

    Climate models have been pretty consistent in predicting drier-than-nomal conditions through the spring, Kodama said.

    East Bay Express – Shoddy Science

    Shoddy Science

    A national panel criticizes the USDA’s scientific research on the light brown apple moth but affirms the agency’s power to start another round of aerial spraying.

    As expected, a panel from the National Academy of Sciences said on Monday that the government has the legal authority to embark on a massive new eradication effort against the light brown apple moth, thereby opening the door for another round of aerial pesticide spraying. But the panel also criticized the United States Department of Agriculture for engaging in shoddy science to substantiate its war on the moth.

    The 21-page report came in response to petitions submitted by opponents of the government’s extermination plans. They had asked the USDA to reclassify the light brown apple moth from being a major pest to one that could be easily controlled by farmers. Such a move would have prohibited aerial spraying or other major eradication efforts that the government is now planning.

    Opponents believe the USDA and state officials have severely overstated the threats posed by the moth, and have noted that it has lived for more than one hundred years in Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii without causing serious, sustained damage to crops or native plants and trees. The USDA, nonetheless, believes the moth will destroy large swaths of cropland throughout California and much of the southern United States. The agency also considers it a serious threat to native redwood and pine forests.