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A new program compensates farmers who have endured discrimination

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.S. Agriculture Department has a rocky history with Black farmers. The agency has acknowledged shutting Black farmers out of funding that helped their white counterparts succeed. Now, after a number of failed attempts to address these harms, USDA is putting together a program that is supposed to dole out $2.2 billion to farmers who have been discriminated against. Here to talk with us more about this new push is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Welcome, Secretary.

TOM VILSACK: It's good to be with you.

RASCOE: So for farmers who have faced discrimination, how will this new USDA program help them?

VILSACK: This is not the first time the Department of Agriculture has been in the business of trying to compensate folks who were discriminated against in the past - the Pigford I and II cases involving Black farmers, the Keepseagle case for Native Americans, Love and Garcia also responded to concerns by Hispanic and women farmers. So we're asking for folks who're - been engaged in this effort to try to get a measure of justice, how do you want us to structure this? How should we treat folks who in the past have received compensation? How do you prove discrimination? Again, so these are all very difficult questions. But this time, we'd like to have some input from folks in terms of how best to structure this so we provide as much help and assistance as we can.

RASCOE: This program is not specifically for Black farmers, though, right? Like, why is it race-neutral?

VILSACK: Well, it's - this is not necessarily race-neutral in the sense that this resource is available to farmers who believe they've been discriminated against. This could be as a result of race. It could be as a result of gender. It could be a result of some other classification that folks feel that they were not treated fairly or properly by USDA.

RASCOE: Congress, through the American Rescue Plan, had set aside $5 billion for farmers of color. That was challenged in court by white farmers. Some farmers and advocates say that the government should have done more to keep that program in place. What do you say to that?

VILSACK: Well, it's just not accurate to suggest that the government didn't fight that litigation. We did, very strongly. Congress made the decision to rescind that appropriation, which in essence ended all but one of those lawsuits. There's still one lawsuit pending of the 12 that were filed. That lawsuit will probably be dismissed here in the near future. So we were pursuing them. We were defending the constitutionality of that provision right up until Congress made the decision to rescind.

RASCOE: You know, some advocates have raised concerns that in this new program, Black farmers will not get the help that they need. How will you ensure that that's not the case?

VILSACK: Well, I will tell you, there was an extensive effort in Pigford II during the Obama administration to make sure that people received a notice and awareness of the ability to participate in that program. But having said that, I want to make sure that we sort of discuss the totality of what's going on at USDA. First and foremost, there is this issue of distressed borrowers. We essentially provided - those producers who were delinquent by more than 60 days, we essentially paid their loans up to date. And for the direct loan borrowers, we also provided an additional payment to give us enough time to sit down with them and to basically take a look at how their loans might potentially be restructured.

Now, I would expect and anticipate that a number of those borrowers happened to be Black farmers, but they weren't exclusively Black farmers, so they received benefit. There's also an additional 23,000 borrowers that we're providing help to who aren't necessarily delinquent, but we know that they could potentially face some serious cashflow issues in the future. What this effort is designed to do is to give us the ability for the first time to really be proactive, to try to keep people on the land. We're also making sure that farmers know the full array of benefits and opportunities and programs at USDA. How are we doing that? We've provided over $100 million of resources to what we refer to as cooperator groups. These are organizations that are trusted by farmers of color who have connections with networks of farmers.

RASCOE: I hear what you're saying. You know, I mean, going back to Pigford and recognizing that was a case from 1999 - but although claims were approved, there have been a number, a large number of claimants who have tried to get money who have not gotten the money. And so what you have now is is a case where you have Black farmers have lost so much land over the past century. What do you say to those who say we have been burned before by the USDA?

VILSACK: Well, that's why we're investing resources in these cooperator groups, groups that actually represent and do business with groups of farmers, so that we can begin the process of developing a trusting relationship. We also have the equity commission that's taking a look at any systemic barriers that may exist in our programs. There's a lot going on. So I think it's a much different circumstance and situation than than it's ever been.

RASCOE: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, thank you so much for being with us.

VILSACK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILCO SONG, "MANY WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.