Minority farmers seek redress, claim USDA discrimination

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009

In November, the Agriculture Department began negotiations with Native American farmers in a class-action suit alleging systematic discrimination in the agency's farm loan program. About 15,000 black farmers have received almost $1 billion since the settlement of a similar class-action suit, known as the Pigford case.

Hispanic farmers who have filed similar lawsuits hope this means the government may settle with them, too, even though a federal judge has denied them class certification. Female farmers also filed suit but have been denied class certification.

All four groups allege that they were denied farm loans and given loans with impossible conditions because of their race or gender.

Alberto Acosta, a New Mexico chili farmer, sought help a decade ago from the loan program meant as a last resort for farmers who cannot secure private financing. In 1998 and 1999, he was granted $92,000 in loans by the department.

But because Acosta speaks Spanish, a USDA loan officer was required to sign off on every significant expense. That meant he had to drive 260 miles each way to the office whenever he wanted to buy a piece of farm equipment, and he had to pay for and provide his own translator for each visit.

These conditions ultimately proved so taxing that Acosta's home and farm went into foreclosure, he said in a sworn declaration.

"I feel that this discrimination would not have occurred if I were Anglo," Acosta stated.

Since U.S. District Judge James Robertson in the District denied class certification to the Hispanic and female farmers, their cases must proceed through the court system individually. But the federal government could still decide to treat the cases as classes in a settlement.

"Justice dictates that if in fact the government discriminated against a class of people and we recognize that discrimination existed, you don't use legal barriers -- , i.e., opposing class-action status -- to shield the government," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Agriculture Department spokesman Caleb Weaver said that "USDA is committed to ending all forms of discrimination and addressing past allegations in a timely and fair manner." He said the department is reviewing civil rights complaints, has launched an external evaluation of services provided and "for the first time since 1997, we will have investigators on staff to do the field work needed to investigate complaints."

Currently, 110 Hispanic farmers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington are suing the department. But lead attorney Stephen Hill said if the case were certified as a class, there would be tens of thousands of Hispanic plaintiffs. He could not estimate the potential damages they might seek.

"The discrimination followed a pretty distinct pattern," he said. "Denying applications, repeatedly discouraging them from submitting applications, refusing to assist the farmer, and if the farmer persisted and filed an application, it would be dragged out for months so they couldn't get the seed in the ground. And often, for the most flimsy excuses like language problems, they put Hispanic farmers in supervised accounts."

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