Federal judge halts disaster aid program for minority farmers

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correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk ruled that the Department of Agriculture’s preferences lacked congressional authorization. The article has been corrected.

A federal judge in Texas has blocked an Agriculture Department disaster relief program from giving preferences to minority and female farmers, siding with a group of plaintiffs who allege that the program illegally discriminates against White male farmers.

In an order filed Friday in the Northern District of Texas, Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk found that the program probably violated the plaintiff’s equal protection rights under the Constitution. Kacsmaryk, appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote that the Department of Agriculture is enjoined from providing relief to farmers based on its “socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher” designation, which he said funneled a greater share of aid to farmers identifying as Black, American Indian, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islanders, as well as women.

The injunction comes after a pair of judges in June 2021 blocked a Biden administration program that provided debt relief to farmers of color. Congress subsequently altered the program after those court orders, granting relief based on economic need instead of race.

“America’s farmers have been mistreated by this Administration for years now with one discriminatory scheme after another,” said Braden Boucek, vice president of litigation at the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs. “This ruling is a win for equality across the country, and we are proud to stand beside these farmers in holding the government accountable.”

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The Agriculture Department declined to comment, citing department policy not to comment on pending litigation.

The injunction in the latest legal blow against government programs that give preferences to women and minorities amid a wave of legal challenges to diversity programs spanning the private and public sectors. In March, a Texas judge ordered a 55-year-old federal agency tasked with helping minority-owned businesses access capital and government contracts to open its doors to all races. And last summer, a federal judge ordered that a Small Business Administration program created to help minority-owned businesses access government contracts serve all races, prompting the agency to require applicants to justify their social disadvantage through essays.

Many of the lawsuits and court orders have come after the Supreme Court overturned race-conscious college admissions last June. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit temporarily enjoined a venture capital fund from awarding grants solely to Black women, in a highly watched case concerning diversity, equity and inclusion in the private sector.

In the Agriculture Department case, plaintiffs Rusty Strickland, Alan West and Bryan Baker — all of whom are White male farmers — allege in a lawsuit filed in March that they got less money than minority and female farmers did after Congress appropriated $13.7 billion in crop and livestock disaster assistance in its multiyear farm bill, as well as $11.2 billion in disaster and coronavirus pandemic-related relief.

Strickland alleges that after he and his wife applied for disaster relief, his wife received $71,900 under the program, while he received a tenth of the amount: $7,272. Moreover, the plaintiffs allege that they did not receive insurance refunds because they were not minorities or women.

In court filings, the Justice Department countered that the Agriculture Department’s preferences are justified because “remedial action is firmly rooted in the evidence showing lingering effects of historical discrimination against minority and women farmers in USDA programs.” It cited past instances in which government relief failed to reach farmers because of “structural biases in federal farm programs.”

Race-neutral means to remedy past and ongoing discrimination in relief efforts against minority and female farmers have largely failed, the government added, necessitating the preferences for farmers of color and women.

In his opinion, Kacsmaryk shot down those arguments, writing that the government lacked the proper justification to conduct a race-conscious program and that the program was not properly tailored to meet its goals of remediating past and ongoing discrimination.

Kacsmaryk drew attention in April 2023 when he blocked the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, a widely used abortion medication. In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding access to the drug and appeared skeptical of arguments in favor of limiting access.

John Boyd Jr., a Texas farmer whose organization, the National Black Farmers Association, has sued to protect minority-preference debt relief programs, called the Monday court decision “more of the same as we’re going backwards in this country.”

“You’re going to exclude people by race, but you don’t want to fix it by race,” Boyd said.

Farm subsidies overwhelmingly go to White farmers, which makes it hard for Black-owned farms to compete, he said, adding that setting aside resources to help Black farmers is necessary to correct the disparity.

“No matter how good a farmer I am, I can’t compete with those resources,” Boyd said. “The Black farmer is facing extinction and we’ve got to put laws in place to protect them like you would any other endangered species, so we can pass on generational wealth to the next generation of Black farmers.”

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