To understand these lawsuits, it is important to first know about the Farm Service Agency. One of the major functions of the USDA is to provide timely credit to farmers through the Farm Service Agency. Nearly all producers depend on short-term credit to purchase production inputs, like fertilizer and seeds, because essentially they will not have enough money to make said purchase until they sell their crops.
The availability of credit in rural areas is already low but coupled with the inherently high risk of lending to someone who does not have a guaranteed output, it can be nearly impossible for a farmer to qualify for a regular loan. The USDA farm loan program was partially established to fill that gap and lend to family farmers who were unable to get one elsewhere. These loans are subject to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), which makes in unlawful for creditors to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age. The ECOA provides various remedies for violations, such as actual damages, punitive damages, equitable relief, and attorney’s fees. The discrimination cases were brought utilizing the ECOA for discriminatory lending policies against minority farmworkers.
Pigford v. Glickman
Pigford v. Glickman is a 1997 class action suit brought against the USDA on behalf of 2,000 black farm owners. For years whenever black farmers applied for farm loans or assistance they were met with long wait times and loan denials, while the other non-minority farm owners in similar situations received their requested aid. Although the black farmers would often file civil rights complaints against the agencies denying their loans, as I discussed in my previous blog post, these complaints were rarely investigated. The lack of assistance forced many of these farmers to lose their farms and livihoods; the number of black farmers in America fell from almost one million in 1920 to a few tens of thousands by 1978.
After the black farmers were certified as a class the USDA commissioned a consulting firm to investigate the treatment of minorities and women with regards to Farm Service Agency programs and payments. The firm found overwhelming evidence of discrimination, which incentivized entering into a settlement agreement with these farmers. In 1999 a consent degree was approved, and a settlement agreement was formed to pay the farmers who had been affected by these discriminatory policies. By 2012 approximately $1.06 billion had been paid to 22,000 claimants.
Keepseagle v. Veneman
Keepseagle v. Veneman is a case brought by Native American farmers who were discriminated against by the Farm Service Agency between 1981 and 1999. An NPR interview with the attorneys for the Plaintiffs described it thus:
We found evidence both from the Keepseagles and from many, many other people with whom we spoke that while they were either denied loans on the basis of terms that others who were white farmers and who were applying for loans were granted loans. Or they had loans, as the Keepseagles had, and were seeking to refinance them because they couldn't make the payments and were denied those opportunities or had special conditions imposed on their business operations that their neighbors, who were white, did not have.
The group was certified as a class in 2001, and after a long fought litigation, a settlement agreement was reached in 2010 for $760 million. Native American farmers who had faced discrimination could either apply for a "fast-track" payment of up to $50,000, or apply to a more rigorous process for damages up to $250,000.
Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack
These last two cases are notable not because they were able to successful litigate their claims, but because they still caused the USDA to change their practices. Garcia v. Vilsack is the case of a group of Hispanic farmers that brought a discrimination claim against the USDA. Unlike the previous cases they were denied class certification, but despite that, the USDA implemented a new administrative process specifically for resolving claims by Hispanic farmers.
Similarly, in Love v. Vilsack, a group of women farmers brought suit against the USDA for being treated differently because of their gender when they applied for assistance through the Farm Service Agency. They were also denied class certification, but the USDA responded by creating a specific administrative process for resolving claims brought by women. Additionally, to more equitably settle these disputes, the USDA voluntarily set aside $1.33 billion for discrimination claims brought by members of these two groups.
These cases certainly had a financial impact on the USDA, and likely contributed to the substantial changes Tom Vilsack was able to make while he was head of the USDA. If you would like to read more about civil rights and the USDA, you can check out Part I and Part II.