Federation of Southern Co-ops heads for court to fight for Black farmers’ debt relief

Legal actions are blocking a $4bn package aimed at tackling 100 years of economic racial injustice

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which represents Black farmers, landowners and co-ops in the southern USA, is headed for court in Texas today to fight against a blocking action that is holding back billions of dollars in debt relief to black farmers.

In 2020, the Biden administration pledged to reverse more than a century of systemic economic injustices against Black farmers, with secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack authorising US$4bn as part of the post-Covid American Rescue Plan. Payments were due to begin last June but have been blocked by lawsuits on behalf of white farmers who claim the plan is discriminatory. The lawsuits include the Miller vs Vilsack case, which has been brought in Texas by Stephen Miller, formerly an advisor to president Trump.

The US Department of Agriculture is defending the payments but now the Federation is wants to make sure that the voices and interests of Black farmers are heard directly in court – arguing that the lawsuit “threatens their very existence” and will increase the threat of irreversible land loss from Black farmers.

The Federation says: “The impact of the delayed debt relief for Black and underserved farmers as it pertains to the American Rescue Act is already being experienced by our member-farmers in the form of foreclosure letters and lost land … the judge needs to hear directly from our member farmers that the delayed implementation of Section 1005 will likely cause widespread farm and land loss.”

It says it has been contacted by a number of groups “who would like to assist our efforts and stand in solidarity”, with a diverse group of family farmers rallying in support – with attendance in court when the case opens at 1pm CST.

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The Federation has been working for 55 years to improve stability for its member farmers, who “continue to face race-based discrimination in access to agricultural credit”.

Race-based discrimination in agricultural credit is so widespread, it adds, that its members share “virtually identical experiences” regardless of state.

“Our member farmers, like all farmers and ranchers of colour, did not share equally in the Covid-19 relief or farm subsidies,” the Federation says. “When our member farmers received letters from USDA promising debt relief, they accordingly increased their spending on farm inputs, equipment, and materials.

“The Section 1005 debt relief created an opportunity to chip away at race-based disparities in farm and land loss. Without Section 1005, our member farmers face disproportionate uncertainty about the future of their farms and farmland.

“Last year, our member farmers who relied in good faith on the debt relief guaranteed under Section 1005 had their farming operations detrimentally impacted by the delayed implementation of the programme. They had less access to capital than they budgeted for when the anticipated debt relief never occurred.”

This means the Federation’s member-farmers “face a second year of production challenges … [They] report receiving distressing and confusing written communications from FSA and their guaranteed lenders regarding the threat of foreclosure.

“They are also experiencing increased difficulty making their farm management plans cash flow without the anticipated debt relief and even more difficulty accessing credit for their farming operations because they were unable to afford last year’s financial obligations without the promised debt relief.”

The Federation added: “One of our member farmers told us the delayed implementation of Section 1005 reminded him that, in America, the desires of a few can outweigh the needs of all Black farmers and the Federation believes in an America that will dispel that idea.”