WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some black farmers say they are disappointed with a new U.S. farm debt relief program that is expected to save thousands of farmers from foreclosure, after the plan did not specifically target minorities as they l had hoped.

The program, included in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed by US President Joe Biden on Tuesday, follows a previous debt relief program that provided race-based aid, but ended in a web of litigation after white farmers sued to suspend payments.

The new program, which makes farmers eligible for assistance based on economic hardship rather than race, is likely to end this litigation and free up resources for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help farmers farmers – including those of color – to avoid seizure.

But it also undercuts a Biden administration promise to specifically address systemic racism and heal the USDA’s strained relationship with farmers of color by offering targeted debt relief to repair past agency discrimination against them. caused the loss of billions of dollars of land.

Proponents of the race-based program had hoped to pursue legal battles despite strong odds and see the economics-based program as a failure to address the specific wounds of racism.

“This doesn’t even come close to a model of racial equity that this administration and the USDA have been talking about since the beginning of its tenure,” said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which defends black farmers. .

The law allocates $3.1 billion to the USDA for loan adjustments or payments to farmers who hold loans from the agency’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), a lender of last resort, and 2.2 billions of dollars to farmers who have been discriminated against in the agency’s lending practices.

Farmers of color potentially have the most to gain from the IRA program as they make up nearly a third of those who are behind on FSA loan payments, according to a review of agency data obtained by Reuters via the Freedom of Information Act.

More than 11,100 farmers were 90 days or more behind on payments to the FSA as of May 31, the data showed.

Farmers of color are overrepresented in this group. More than 31% of those in arrears are racial or multiracial minorities, though they account for about 16% of USDA loans issued in 2020, 2021 and 2022, the data shows.

Delinquent borrowers could possibly be at risk of foreclosure. The USDA is currently enforcing a moratorium on foreclosures tied to the coronavirus emergency declaration, which is set to expire in October unless extended.

Given the political, legal and economic landscape, some groups representing farmers of color, who make up about 10% of the country’s farmers, told Reuters the IRA program is the best possible outcome even if it does not specifically target the breed.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s something. It’s a start,” said Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an email to Reuters that the program would give the USDA “important new tools now to help distressed farmers keep farming and bring justice to those who have been discriminated against”.

Several people involved in policymaking told Reuters the IRA program would achieve racial justice goals by keeping farmers on their land.

“For farmers, especially black farmers, who have suffered discrimination from the USDA, this legislation sets in motion a process to bring justice,” Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in an e -mail to Reuters.

Booker led the charge alongside Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia to include the debt relief program in the IRA.

The government defended the earlier debt relief program, enacted in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), against several lawsuits, including a class action lawsuit by white Texas farmers alleging discrimination.

Legal experts have said the government is likely to lose the case and an appeal could send the case to the conservative-majority Supreme Court, potentially threatening other supposedly race-conscious programs like affirmative action.

The IRA repeals the section of ARPA that defined the race-targeted debt relief program, and the Justice Department is likely to dismiss the lawsuits, three sources familiar with the litigation said.

“I can’t imagine that [the IRA] don’t kill these cases,” said Jessica Culpepper, an attorney with the nonprofit public interest law firm Public Justice who is involved in the litigation.

The Justice Department and USDA declined to comment on their plans for the litigation.

Some black farmers who worked for months to defend the ARPA program still hoped they would prevail against all odds and viewed the end of the legal battles as a failure.

“I am very, very disappointed with this legislative action,” John Boyd, Jr., a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association, which is a party to the Texas litigation, said in a statement.

“I am prepared to fight for debt relief for black, Native American and other farmers of color all the way to the Supreme Court.”

(Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Deepa Babington)

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