Updated 3:08 p.m., June 11: A federal judge paused the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s debt relief program for farmers of color. The payments are part of the $5 billion set aside in the most recent stimulus bill to support farmers of color.
A conservative law firm filed the suit, claiming the program violated the constitutional rights of white farmers. U.S. District Judge William Griesbach in Milwaukee issued a temporary restraining order Thursday.
The USDA program pays 120% of debts administered by the Farm Service Agency or from a Commodity Credit Corporation Farm Storage Facility Loan. Payments were scheduled to be sent starting in June.
Zach Ducheneaux, Farm Service Agency administrator, says the FSA is disappointed about the ruling.
“We’re going to vigorously defend our program that we’re trying to implement in court and that’s about all I’m allowed to say about that,” Ducheneaux says.
Three banking groups wrote a letter to agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack in April, urging the USDA to consider changing the payment process to minimize damage to smaller banks.
For decades, the FSA discriminated against Black farmers by denying them loans critical to building and maintaining their farms and ranches. Some Black farmers won a $1 billion class-action discrimination lawsuit in the 1990s.
As the new administrator under the Biden administration, Ducheneaux says he’s trying to change the FSA for the better. He’s a rancher in South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and former executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the largest Native American agriculture organization in the country.
“They have never had an administrator of the FSA that has been in their shoes,” Ducheneaux says. “Nor have they had an administrator of the FSA that has spent the last 20 years of their life, advocating for producers, just like them, getting producers in the door.”
Editor’s note: This post was updated with new information about the lawsuit and the temporary restraining order.