WY rancher sues USDA over racial discrimination
The Mountain States Legal Foundation, on behalf of Wyoming rancher Leisl Carpenter, filed suit against the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack recently. She alleges that the American Rescue Plan Act violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, because people of certain races are denied the opportunity to access the benefits being made available.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides $4 billion to forgive loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as part of the Biden Administration’s COVID relief plan. According to Mountain States Legal Foundation, white farmers and ranchers are excluded in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection, which is secured under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
According to William Trachman, Associate General Counsel for Mountain States Legal Foundation, the loans- which fund 120% of loan balances to also cover applicable taxes- are available only to socially disadvantaged farmers based on race. Wyoming rancher and MSLF client Leisl Carpenter, he said, was denied relief based on her skin color.
“For those groups (that qualify) there is no requirement that you have been discriminated against previously,” Trachman said. “There’s no requirement that you have a long and storied history of a ranch or a farm that suffered discrimination. You may have just gone into the farming and ranching business. Nevertheless, you would be eligible for 120% debt relief on your loan through the Farm Service Agency.”
Though he calls it a windfall for those who qualify, it excludes a number of producers who were deeply affected by COVID-19. He said whether the government is giving a benefit or burden on the basis of race, that benefit or burden must meet the strictest standard known to law. These equal protection principles are the basis under which this case was filed.
According to Trachman, the Biden administration offered the history of societal discrimination against African American, Native American, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders as justification for excluding Caucasian farmers and ranchers. Trachman said Sec. Tom Vilsack has said that previous COVID relief has gone disproportionately to Caucasian producers, making it time to target this relief at a different group.
“The statute does not require that you either suffered discrimination or that you suffered devastation because of COVID 19,” he said. “You could simply be a member of one of those groups and be eligible, regardless of your individual circumstances.”
Trachman said proving that certain individuals have suffered discrimination is possible, but classifying every farmer and rancher by race is presumptively unconstitutional. Recent court cases Trachman points to as a framework for this one include college admissions based on race, and the award of certain government contracts based on the race of the business owner.
One of the rationales offered by the USDA, Trachman said, is that 97% of recipients of COVID relief for farmers and ranchers were white. Though he said he can’t confirm that statistic, he said the majority of farmers and ranchers are white and that number doesn’t justify the actions taken to pay relief based on race.
“We think the way the government has done this is especially sloppy and offers a compelling legal challenge to the points made,” he said. “I don’t think it was a clever way of going about race consciousness to the extent that was the government’s goal.”
Carpenter’s maternal grandmother’s family immigrated from Denmark and eventually settled in the Big Laramie Valley west of Laramie in 1894. This land remains the home to the Flying Heart Ranch today. With one exception, the ranch has been passed down to daughters, operating through the Great Depression, a flu pandemic in 1918, and other challenges.
Today the 2,400-acre ranch is home to over 500 head of cattle and hay and they also utilize BLM grazing permits. She has about $250,000 in debt that would be forgiven if she qualified as a “socially disadvantaged” rancher.
As has been the case for many ranchers, drought and adverse market conditions have made the business of ranching difficult and when a portion of their leased pasture burned in a fire, Carpenter was faced with increasingly difficult decisions.
The debt shouldered by Carpenter’s grandparents, she said, took a toll on them. When her own parents returned to the ranch, the U.S. was entering the farm crisis of the 1980s.
“From a very early age, I saw my mom and grandmother who are significant women in my life, doing a job that’s not traditional in any aspects,” she said. “They really ingrained in me how to be a strong, independent woman while doing what I want to do. My love of agriculture has been evident since I was born.”
Carpenter said times on the ranch have been difficult, especially with such volatile markets. When her grandparents passed away in 2009, Carpenter and her mother were left with staggering debt. At that point, she and her mother were facing foreclosure on the six generation ranch.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “We had our Centennial Ranch that we could possibly lose because of the debt my grandparents accumulated.”
Only 18 at the time, Carpenter began the process of securing a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan. Without the advantages of a credit history or assets, she said the FSA was the only avenue available to her. The loan was finalized when she was 20 years old and dating her now husband, Tim.
“We cut our teeth on learning to do everything we could just to make a living,” she said. “We did and we’re still here. It’s not easy but we’re still here.”
COVID, she said, was frightening. She was a new mom and facing a volatile market and processing disruptions. Even with government assistance, the unknowns were heavy.
Carpenter said having access to the debt relief denied to her would be life changing for her and other ranchers like her, especially young producers attempting to begin their own operations. She said she was frustrated and reached out to the Biden administration and her state legislators to no avail.
“Debt is common in ag,” she said. “It’s uncommon to find anyone of any skin color in a farm or ranch that isn’t in debt.”
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