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USDA addressing farm loan issues

USDA addressing farm loan issues

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is alerting female and Hispanic farm owners they c

Volatile milk prices, destructive bugs and bad weather all make it hard enough for farmers to stay afloat, but female and Hispanic farmers have been facing another roadblock in their efforts to succeed — the United States Department of Agriculture.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is now alerting female and Hispanic farm owners they could be eligible for as much as $50,000 in compensation for discrimination they faced if they tried to get farm loan benefits from 1981 to 2000.

The federal government has earmarked $1.33 billion to compensate those farmers who faced resistance or rejection when trying to apply for assistance.

Some loans were denied, others were late or approved for less than the farmers requested, some had restrictive conditions tied to them and some came with a lower level of service than offered to non-minority farmers.

“The USDA has a long and admitted history of discrimination against minority and female farmers, there’s no real dispute about that,” said attorney Stephen S. Hill, who is representing Hispanic farmers who suffered discrimination and sued the USDA.

Female and Hispanic farmers will have to submit a claim packet to the USDA within a 180-day time frame, but when that period will begin isn’t yet known.

Making the situation worse, Hill said, is the fact that American Indian and black farmers who sued the government over the same circumstances had their cases ruled a class action, but female and Hispanic farmers didn’t. That is due to differing perspectives by different federal judges who ruled on the lawsuits, so the female and Hispanic farmers have a more-difficult process to go through than blacks and Indians.

Hill said in one example of discrimination, a minority farmer called the USDA seeking an application for a farming loan and was told the office was all out of application documents — but the applications were available online.

“All the staff person had to do is go to his computer, press a button and print out an application,” he said.

Minority farmers persistent enough to get an application were denied, Hill said. Some of the applications were stalled for weeks or months, which led some farmers to miss out on production altogether.

“We have instances where applications were dragged out six to eight months,” he said.

According to the most-recent Census of Agriculture, for the year 2007, hundreds of farm owners in Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties could have faced discrimination and should be eligible for some money.

There were more than 640 female-owned farms in those six Capital Region counties alone, producing a combined total of $13.67 million in goods.

Nationwide, women represent more than 30 percent of U.S. farm owners, an estimated 306,209.

The Census of Agriculture doesn’t have county-level figures depicting the number of agricultural operations owned by Hispanic farmers.

Nationwide, Hispanic-owned farms grew by 14 percent between 2002 and 2007 to 82,462 farms, according to the Census of Agriculture.

The states with the highest percentage of Hispanic farm owners were New Mexico, California, Texas, Florida and Hawaii.

Kristine Dunne, an attorney representing female farmers in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the USDA, said there are serious concerns about the claim settlement process, including the fact that the start of the 180-day period in which claims are to be submitted is still unknown.

She said the process set up to compensate female farmers who suffered discrimination is more difficult than that established for black and Indian farmers in the same situation, and the potential compensation is less.

That’s also the case for Hispanic farmers, said Hill.

Hill has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the claims process itself, contending it violates the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses.

“What the government is doing is going around touting what we say is a settlement proposal that is discriminatory and blatantly so on its face,” he said. “We think unfortunately this is a cynical attempt to trick minority farmers who have been the admitted victims of decades of discrimination into a horrible deal.”

Although the claims process is purported to address discrimination dating back from 1981 to the year 2000, Hill said things still haven’t changed.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, congressional committees and the U.S. inspector general have all filed reports documenting discrimination at the USDA, Hill said, but “nothing or fairly little has changed in all this period of time.”

The most-recent federal action, Hill said, has been to earmark $8 million for a private law firm to investigate discrimination at the USDA.

Hill suggests female and Hispanic farmers contact an attorney to consider their options on the claims and potential compensation from the government.

For those who may qualify, more information and a claims packet can be requested online at www.farmerclaims.gov or by telephone at 888-508-4429.

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