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By Leah Douglas
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Black and other farmers of color filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government on Wednesday, claiming the recent repeal of a debt relief program that targeted them amounts to a breach of contract by the government.
The suit comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is set to roll out an amended debt relief program, passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, that allocates relief based on economic need rather than race.
USDA offers operating and ownership loans to farmers through its Farm Service Agency (FSA). The agency had previously said it would forgive loan debt held by farmers it describes as socially disadvantaged, in an attempt to compensate for decades of discriminatory lending practices that contributed to them losing land.
The definition includes Black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian farmers.
White farmers alleged discrimination and stalled the program with lawsuits. It was then repealed by the IRA, which instead included a debt relief provision based solely on economic need, angering some Black farmer groups.
Four Virginia farmers of color argue in the suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, that the repeal amounted to breaching a contract with farmers, some of whom made financial plans or bought new equipment or land based on the expectation of relief.
The farmers are represented by Ben Crump, a prominent U.S. civil rights attorney known for his work representing the families of Black Americans killed by police.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the suit.
About 14,000 farmers of color received letters from USDA between May and September of 2021 promising a cumulative $2.4 billion in debt relief, according to earlier Reuters reporting.
Princess Williams, one of the four plaintiffs, said at a news conference in Washington that she had signed and returned one of those letters and took out new loans with the expectation of having her FSA debt forgiven.
“We did not receive that money and now, it’s putting us in a total financial bind,” she said.