The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made significant progress in addressing allegations of discrimination against minority and women farmers both in the farm loan programs it administers and in its workforce that have hounded it for over a decade, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Since 1997, the USDA has been the target of major civil rights lawsuits brought by African-American, Native American, Hispanic, and women farmers. The suits generally accused the USDA of using discriminatory practices to illegally deny loans, delay loan application processing, underfund loan amounts and create unnecessary and burdensome roadblocks in the loan application process. These discriminatory practices were found to create unnecessary financial hardships for minority farmers.
Two of the best-known civil rights lawsuits filed against the USDA --Pigford v. Glickmanand Brewington v. Glickman - filed on behalf of African-American farmers, resulted in the largest civil rights settlements in history. To date, over $1 billion has been paid to over 16,000 farmers as a result of settlements in the Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman suits.
Today, Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who believe they were discriminated against by the USDA in making or servicing farm loans between 1981 and 2000 can file claims for cash awards or debt relief on eligible farm loans by visiting the USDA's Farmersclaims.gov website.
GAO Finds Progress Made
In October 2008, the GAO made six recommendations for ways the USDA could improve its performance in resolving farmers' discrimination claims and providing minority farmers with access to programs intended to help them succeed.
Also See: Isolated US Farmers to Get Some HelpIn its report titled, USDA's Progress toward Implementing GAO's Civil Rights Recommendations, the GAO told Congress the USDA fully addressed three of its six recommendations from 2008, made significant progress toward addressing two, and made some progress toward addressing one. (See: Table 1, page 3, of the GAO report)
Outreach Programs for Minority Farmers and Ranchers
As early as 2002, the USDA committed to improving its support for minority farmers by releasing $98.2 million in grants to supplement its loan programs specifically for minority and small farmers and ranchers. Of the grants, then Sec. of Agriculture Ann Veneman said, "We are committed to utilizing all resources available to help farm and ranch families, particularly minority and small producers, who need assistance." grants for minority farmers and extensive efforts to promote civil rights awareness and equality within the USDA itself, perhaps the most important changes arising from the settlements of the civil rights lawsuits have been the series of USDA outreach programs intended to serve minority and women farmers and ranchers. Some of these programs include:
Office of the Pigford Case Monitor: The Office of the Monitor provides access to all court documents, including court orders and decisions related to the Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman lawsuits filed against the USDA on the behalf of African-American farmers and ranchers. The collection of documents provided on the Office of the Monitor website are intended to help persons with claims against the USDA arising from the lawsuits learn about the payments and other relief they are entitled to under the courts' rulings.
Minority and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Assistance (MSDA): Operating under the USDA's Farm Service Agency, the Minority and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Assistance was established specifically to assist minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who apply for USDA farm loans. The MSDA also offers the USDA Minority Farm Register to all minority persons involved in farming or ranching. Participants in the Minority Farm Register are mailed regular updates on the USDA's efforts to assist minority farmers.
Women and Community Outreach Programs: Created in 2002, the Community Outreach and Assistance to Women, Limited Resource and Other Traditionally Under Served Farmers and Ranchers Program provides loans and grants to community colleges and other community based organizations for developing outreach projects to provide women and other under-served farmers and ranchers with the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary to make informed risk management decisions for their operations.
Small Farms Program: Many of America's small and family farms are owned by minorities. In the Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman lawsuits, the courts criticized the USDA as having an attitude of indifference toward the needs of minority small farmers and ranchers. The USDA's Small and Family Farm Program, administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is an attempt to correct that.
Project Forge: Another minority outreach effort of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Project Forge provides assistance and training to the primarily Hispanic and other minority farmers and ranchers in rural regions of South Texas. Operating out of the University of Texas-Pan American, Project Forge has been successful in improving the economic condition in the South Texas region through both its training programs and development of famers markets.