Decades of discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture against women and Hispanic farmers are playing out in a $1.3 billion claims process. FM89’s Rebecca Plevin reports on a new deadline for those who allege discrimination.
For around 20 years, critics say the USDA’s farm loan program denied applicants because of their gender or race, and gave white male farmers preferential treatment in their dealings with the agency.
Under a claims program set up in 2011, the agency set aside $1.3 billion for cash payments and tax relief for Hispanic and female farmers. It also includes another $160 million in farm debt relief. Earlier this month, the USDA announced that those who allege discrimination between 1981 and 2000 now have until May 1 to file their claims.
Lillian Salerno, acting administrator for rural business for the USDA says the agency is trying to correct past misdeeds with the process.
“It’s a commitment by Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration to civil rights,” says Salerno.
She says those who think they may have a claim will need to provide documentation as part of the process.
“This process allows folks under a voluntary method to turn in a claims form with proper identification and authentic documents, and have those documents and claims forms evaluated and potentially recover damages for any kind of discrimination they received during the period of 1981 to 2000,” says Salerno.
The allegations came to light through a number of lawsuits. But after the federal courts chose not to grant the cases class action status, that left individual farmers with one option: to take their claims individually through the court system. According to the USDA, the claims process offers a more simple and voluntary alternative to litigation.
In 2010, the agency announced separate discrimination settlements for African American and Native American farmers.
Salerno says the USDA hopes the new deadline will give individuals more time to complete the necessary paperwork.
“As we approached the deadline, the Secretary made the decision to extend the deadline to May 1, to make adequate assurances that folks that had received the claims form, but hadn’t had an opportunity to get all their documents together, didn’t miss the deadline,” says Salerno.
More information about the claims process is available at www.farmerclaims.gov.