Farmers See Ray of Hope in USDA Bias Case

George Keepseagle is one of thousands of Native American farmers covered by a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in loan programs.
George Keepseagle is one of thousands of Native American farmers covered by a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in loan programs. (By Will Kincaid -- Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

George and Marilyn Keepseagle worry they will lose their North Dakota home on the Standing Rock reservation after a half century of ranching. Claryca Mandan had to trade her cattle and crops for an office job. Montana rancher Luther Crasco declared bankruptcy after being denied a loan for a crucial irrigation system.

They are among thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers covered by a class-action lawsuit against the Agriculture Department alleging widespread racial discrimination in loan programs meant to be a resource of last resort for those turned down by banks.

The Agriculture Department has acknowledged problems in the past, and Secretary Tom Vilsack has stressed his commitment to improving diversity and equal opportunity in the agency, USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said.

The lawsuit was filed 10 years ago, but plaintiffs hope they may finally get a settlement under the Obama administration.

African American farmers settled with the USDA in 1999 in a similar class action, named for farmer Timothy Pigford. Nearly a billion dollars was paid to Pigford claimants, and this year President Obama requested $1.25 billion more for farmers who missed the 2000 filing deadline.

In April, Vilsack announced an effort to increase diversity and combat discrimination in the department. He called for an independent analysis of field offices with an emphasis on socially disadvantaged farmers, and created a task force to review past and pending civil rights complaints.

"I intend to lead the Department in correcting its past errors, learning from its mistakes, and moving forward to a new era of equitable service and access for all," Vilsack said in an April memo.

The discovery process in the Keepseagle lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, wraps up this fall. Lawsuits alleging USDA lending discrimination against Hispanic and female farmers are also working their way through the courts, though they are not class-action suits.

The Keepseagle suit seeks compensation for Native American farmers and ranchers who alleged discrimination in the USDA's loan program between 1981 and 1999. Lead attorney Joseph M. Sellers thinks tens of thousands of people denied a total of $3 billion in credit could be included in the class. Using USDA formulas, he estimates that plaintiffs are owed up to $1 billion in lost income; they are not seeking punitive damages.

Locally elected committees of farmers and ranchers decide who gets USDA loans and the terms. The panel members are disproportionately white men, who the plaintiffs say often harbor negative stereotypes about Native Americans and their farming ability.

"These are our nation's first farmers; they were farming before Columbus came," Sellers said. "How can they say these Native Americans who have been doing this for 500 years are lousy farmers? There are cultural differences, they don't always see profit maximization as the sole goal . . . But it's just a different set of values."

In response to widespread reports of discrimination in farm programs and employment, in 1997 the USDA civil rights office held 12 listening sessions. The resulting report notes that in 1994, 94 percent of county farm loan committees included no women or minorities.

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