LatinaLista — The life of a farmer has always been known to be a hard life. Throw in global warming, drought and a poor economy and a farmer’s life can teeter on financial ruin — if it weren’t for special farm credit and non-credit farm benefit programs to help farmers during rough times.
New Mexico farmer David Flores
Yet, it seems that not even those financial aid programs help farmers who are Latino.
Garcia v. Vilsack, C.A. No. 00:2445, is currently pending in the district court for the District of Columbia. A group of Hispanic farmers filed their lawsuit in 2000 against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for discriminating against Hispanic farmers and ranchers in how the USDA administers their farm credit and non-credit farm benefit programs. Farmers say the discrimination has gone back as far as 1981.
The ironic sidebar to this lawsuit is that black farmers, who filed an identical class action lawsuit in 1997, have so far received $2.25 billion — that includes a recent proposed appropriation of $1.25 billion by the White House.
However, Hispanic farmers still wait for some financial relief. Some just couldn’t wait any longer. These farmers have either been forced out of business, lost their farms to foreclosure or simply gave up.
What makes this case noteworthy are several facts about it:
Hispanic farmers question why they have been required to prove more than their black and Native American counterparts in order to have a class certified. Their case has languished for nearly nine years in the judicial system while an identical case has proceeded to a successful resolution.
In this punishing economy, farmers, as all small businessmen, must plan and capitalize their businesses carefully and frugally. Loan programs are an integral part of their planning cycle. Historically farmers, as other small businesses looking to prepare or purchase inventory, borrow money to buy raw materials (in this case seed and other equipment and services), use that material to produce inventory, sell their inventory and repay loans. Every element of that cycle is interdependent and critical for success. Without these USDA loans, Hispanic farmers are deprived of the vital funding needed to run their farms.
A judge has refused to certify classes in the Hispanic Farmers and Women Farmers cases despite the fact that two of his colleagues in the same courthouse have certified classes in both the Black Farmers and the Native American Farmers cases – cases that are virtually identical to the Hispanic and Women Farmers’ cases down to the exact wording of the complaints.
At a recent public hearing between El Paso, Texas farmers and ranchers with the federal government, an invited local TV broadcaster, invited by the farmers to cover the meeting, was ejected from the meeting by the new Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights for the Department of Agriculture — Joe Leonard.
While one print reporter was finally allowed to cover the meeting, it seems federal officials didn’t want anything recorded. It would be hard to explain to President Obama what one longtime Latino farmer had to say at that meeting:
Alfredo Alvarez Contreras, a local cotton farmer, told Leonard inside the closed door meeting how the Department of Agriculture admittedly discriminated against him and his farming colleagues for years.
Speaking in Spanish, Contreras said, “We’re all suffering because, you know, we’re asking help from friends – lend me a tractor-trailer. We don’t have money and nobody is lending to us because of this pending litigation.”
New Mexico farm that farmer David Flores was denied by the USDA in favor of a white farmer who only wanted the land to sell the water rights to the state.
And yet, when the federal government does say they will lend money, they suddenly change their minds.
David Flores is a third generation Hispanic farmer from Hagerman, New Mexico. He was born and raised on his family’s farm. In 1989 he saw an advertisement for a USDA inventory farm for sale to socially disadvantaged farmers. When he applied to purchase the farm he was told by the County Supervisor that because it was “late” in the season, he should lease the farm for the remainder of the year and purchase it in January 1990.
He used his money and the help from his family to get the farm in working order and produce a crop. During his lease the new USDA County Supervisor told him the USDA would not be honoring his lease/buy agreement and it would be reclassified so anyone could buy it. He would need to move off farm at end of lease.
His white neighbor told him the County Supervisor’s assistant had told him to bid on the farm he was leasing and even told him that the USDA would assist in the purchase. To make a long story short, after the local USDA Farmers Home Administration County Committee awarded him the right to purchase the farm his white neighbor appealed the decision and after numerous appeals; the USDA awarded him the farm.
The stated reason for the ultimate decision to award him the farm was his alleged greater need for the farm’s barn to support his ongoing farming operations on his neighboring farm. After buying the farm from the USDA, the neighbor never did farm it and did not use the barn. In fact, he immediately sold the farm’s water rights to the state.
To this day the farm still lies dormant and overgrown.
The case of the Hispanic farmers against the USDA has gone on for long nine years with no effort made to resolve the issue and address these real concerns. These farmers believed in the US judicial system and because of that respect for the law have maintained their silence hoping that one more of their friends isn’t forced out.
But nine years is a long time and patience runs its course. Finally, the farmers are reaching out to tell their story to all who will listen.
Latina Lista listened and we ask:
1. Why does the USDA refuse to grant equal access to Hispanic farmers to their loan program?
2. Why does a federal judge refuse to certify classes in the Hispanic Farmers and Women Farmers cases when similar cases for Native American and black farmers were resolved?
These Hispanic citizens who are trying to carve a working legacy for their own families and are being prevented from doing so by blatant discriminatory practices and attitudes deserve to have their cases resolved quickly.
On top of that, the USDA needs to undergo a thorough review of how they implement policy and ferret out what has obviously become institutionalized racism.
Only then will every farmer, male and female, be treated with the dignity, equality and respect warranted for those who grow this nation’s food.