- By Chez Oxendine
- Food | Agriculture
The Department of Agriculture has launched a financial assistance program for Indigenous and other farmers who have experienced discrimination by the agency’s lending programs.
Under Section 22007 of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the USDA has opened applications for producers who have suffered discriminatory practices. While potential individual awards were not listed in the announcement, the program has a total allocation of $2.2 billion. Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners are all eligible for the program.
Applications will remain open through October 31 of this year. Expected dispersals will arrive “in early next calendar year by check,” per the USDA announcement.
The same announcement stressed that the online application process is free and that farmers should keep an eye out for lawyers or retainer groups pressuring people into agreements surrounding their eventual assistance through “misinformation about the discrimination assistance process.”
Agricultural organizations across Indian Country praised the measure as the next logical step in the USDA’s debt-relief efforts for disadvantaged farmers devastated by pandemic-era economic disruptions such as interrupted supply chains, infrastructural failures, and lowered demand for product.
"For far too long, the original stewards of the land have been navigating a landscape of systemic bias, and those persistent barriers have created insurmountable challenges for Native producers,” Native American Agriculture Fund CEO Toni Stanger McLaughlin said in a statement. She called the program’s financial assistance for those who have faced discrimination “a crucial step towards accountability and a shift towards improving services within USDA lending programs, creating more equitable opportunities for Native agriculture to thrive.”
Kari Jo Lawrence, executive director for the nonprofit Intertribal Agriculture Council, called the move a step in the right direction — even if it didn’t go all the way toward solving chronic credit access issues for Native farmers.
“The Discrimination Financial Assistance Program is an acknowledgment that discrimination has been an ongoing challenge at USDA,” Lawrence said in a statement. “While this (p)rogram is not comprehensive compensation for the discriminatory experiences so many Tribal and other producers have endured in USDA lending programs, it is an opportunity for some level of financial assistance that has not previously been available.”
The program will be administered through nongovernmental USDA partners in connection with USDA’s regional hubs to ensure a neutral, fair review of accepted applications. In addition, the USDA will work with organizations centered on particular marginalized communities, such as the Intertribal Agriculture Council, to help with outreach toward potential applicants.
Section 22007 funding represents the latest part of an effort that began in early 2021 under the American Rescue Plan Act. Under ARPA, the Department allocated $4 billion specifically targeting “socially disadvantaged” farmers, such as women, people of color, and veteran-owned operations. Under that program, awarded farmers would have up to 120 percent of their debt forgiven, leading to a cash infusion for some.
However, on the cusp of that program’s launch, attorneys filed injunctions in multiple states on behalf of white farmers that alleged “reverse discrimination” and stymied the debt relief before it could be dispersed. While the USDA initially pledged to fight the injunctions in court, the agency soon conceded that the resulting battle could take years to resolve, leading to a significant delay in relief.
The retraction of the previously promised funds prompted an October 2022 lawsuit from Native and Black farmers amid fears that it would mean less relief for the farmers who needed it most. That lawsuit - John Boyd, et. al. v. United States - was later dismissed, though that decision was appealed last month.
The opening of the new 22007 application process this month could bring a measure of relief to Native and Black farmers who didn’t get needed help two years ago. While the ultimate scope and form of financial assistance has changed, the goal remains to create “equitable and inclusive” solutions for USDA debt relief, according to Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“The opening of the application process is an important step in delivering on our commitment of providing financial assistance to those who faced discrimination in USDA farm lending, as swiftly and efficiently as possible,” Vilsack said in a statement. “USDA will continue to work with our national vendor partners and community-based organizations to make sure eligible farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have clear information about what is available to them, how to apply, and where to obtain assistance with their questions at each step of the way.”