The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a long history of discriminating against farmers who are women, Hispanic, Native and African American. Numerous lawsuits have cost the government several billion dollars. The latest legal settlement is for women and Hispanic farmers who can prove they were discriminated against in the 1980s and ‘90s. But some of these farmers say the deal to make amends for discrimination is itself discriminatory.
On February 1, 1983, Rosemary Love was lying in a hospital bed. She had breast cancer. The doctors had just performed surgery to save her life. It had been a tough string of years. Like many other ranchers in central Montana, Love had taken out government loans, but she was behind on her payments.
On that day in the hospital, Love got a visitor – the head of the local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Love: “And he wanted me to sign to sign a security agreement. A new security agreement.”
The new document would have given the USDA a claim to her property, her livestock, and the next season's crops.
Love: “So I told him 'No. No!' And totally I was still pretty fuzzy in the head, but I told him no I would not.”
Later that year, the USDA accelerated her loan, demanding payment in full in 30 days. Love says she was forced to declare bankruptcy, and watched as the government had portions of her family's ranch liquidated.
Love: “They'd come in with semis and haul machinery, haul sheep, small farm trucks would haul pigs. And then we got our eviction notice to get off the land.”
But there was something strange going on. Other ranchers in the area back then weren’t losing their land. Around 1990, Love found out why – when another farmer mentioned he received loan forgiveness.
Love: “So, I went to the courthouse, to look at these documents, and I was taken back.
What did she find at the courthouse?
Love: “Documents that states forgiveness of the debt.”
To other farmers.
Love: "Yep. All of them were male. All of them.”
Love testified about these experiences in court documents and before Congress.
She's one of thousands of farmers who say the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them -- for being female, black, Native American or Hispanic. Some were told there was no money left for a loan or no more application forms. Other farmers received loans, but for not enough or under terms that forced them into foreclosure. A few women say they were offered loans in exchange for sexual favors.
Federal investigations confirmed the pattern of civil rights violations at the USDA. In 2010, the Obama administration's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged the violations at a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
Vilsack: “We are very committed trying to get these cases settled and closing this rather sordid chapter of USDA history.”
That's brought USDA officials to farm conferences and expos like this one in Spokane. Idaho's federal Farm Services director Dick Rush told this crowd the department is on the final leg of its efforts to settle discrimination suits. He’s looking for women and Hispanic farmers who qualify.
Rush: “I don’t know the circumstances, but we do know there are people who feel like they weren’t getting a fair shake and this is a chance to rectify that.”
But some of the details of the filing process have riled farmers and their attorneys.
Barbara Wahl represents women farmers. She says the mechanics of the settlement are so flawed, many of the people who legitimately suffered discrimination may end up with nothing.
Wahl: “There's a lot of confusion among the potential claimants about exactly what it is you're supposed to be attaching, what you're supposed to be saying. You must provide documents, some of which are decades old. USDA itself doesn't have any of this documentation – they didn't keep the records or they threw it out. But yet they expect the claimants to have this documentation.”
Some of the requirements are different than they were for African American and Native American farmers and ranchers. The burden of proof is higher for women and Hispanic farmers and they don’t get free legal assistance.
Wahl: “I think once again, women are getting the short end of the stick.”
The USDA says unlike the black and Native American farmers, women and Hispanic farmers did not receive class action status in their suits.
“And also, the claims package is designed to prevent any fraud by any individual that may be submitting some false information to obtain an award in this process,” says Juan Garcia, head of the Farm Services Agency.
As for Rosemary Love, she stopped ranching around the year 2000. She’s been able to keep some of her Montana ranch-land. But once a year, she gets a bill from the USDA for her unpaid debt. Love says she sure would like to get the debt forgiveness that other farmers got.
Love: “I've got a grandson that would love to operate the ranch, would love it. And we've all been on hold to see what's going to happen to us.”
She’s not sure she’ll file a claim because if it’s rejected, she gives up her right to go court under the terms of the settlement.
In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture faces another lawsuit. A Hispanic farmer is suing over the discrimination settlement – saying the process itself violates his civil rights.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio