Are you a woman or a Hispanic who planted a backyard garden between 1981 and 2000? Did you ever dream of asking for a loan for help growing more? If so, you might be a victim of discrimination and entitled to a $50,000 payout from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But hurry—the deadline for submitting your claim is March 25.
The USDA announced in September that it would award a total of at least $1.3 billion to women and Hispanics who were not offered subsidized farm loans that they applied for, or said later they would have liked to apply for, from 1981 to 2000. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, saying that his agency was following the “path to justice,” invited “women and Hispanic farmers and ranchers who allege past discrimination” to come forward “to receive compensation.”
The bonanza was spurred by the Obama administration’s apparent discovery of a constitutional right for every citizen to squander tax dollars while farming. Since most farm loans previously went to white males, Uncle Sam is atoning by giving awards of $50,000 apiece to claimants from other ethnic groups or the non-male gender.
But the Arent Fox law firm in Washington, D.C., and other advocates for female farmers took exception to the USDA’s requirement that claimants submit solid evidence that they actually farmed or sought subsidized loans during the late 20th century.
The current standard for women and Hispanics is more rigorous than the one used during the rounds of settlements—the last one ended in 2010—to award billions of dollars to blacks who claimed to be victims of USDA discrimination between 1981 and 1996. In those cases, black claimants’ simple assertion that they had attempted to farm or had applied unsuccessfully for a farm loan was sometimes sufficient to collect a large payout. In December, the Government Accountability Office noted that most of the black applicants’ claims had been “evaluated based solely on the information submitted by the claimants and, as a result, the adjudicator of these claims has no way of independently verifying that information.”
Advocates for female farmers are also unhappy because the USDA is not providing free lawyers to help claimants collect a payout (as it did for black claimants). A report last October for Arent Fox by sociologist Eugene Ericksen also complained that the claims form was “excessively burdensome” because it requested women to specify the “exact year(s)” they applied for subsidized loans and to “describe your farming operation or your effort to farm” and “your prior farm experience(s), training or education.”
Such questions may have been spurred by the profusion of shaky claims under prior settlements. More than 90,000 African Americans filed claims before the deadline in 2012, asserting that they were wrongly denied farm loans or other USDA benefits in the 1980s and 1990s. The Census Bureau later estimated that there were at most 33,000 black-operated farms nationwide in those years. Even that number probably is inflated because anyone who sells more than $1,000 in agricultural commodities—the equivalent of 150 bushels of wheat, or one horse—is categorized as if he were a bona fide farmer.