Obama USDA offering women, Hispanic farmers over $1.3 billion in discrimination payouts

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As part of “a new era of civil rights” at the Department of Agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Monday that Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who believe USDA discriminated against them can file claims to get a piece of at least $1.33 billion in cash awards and tax relief payments and up to $160 million in farm debt relief, beginning this week.

Women and Hispanic ranchers and farmers who feel the agency denied their loan or loan servicing applications because of their race or gender at various periods from 1981 to 2000 can file claims alleging discrimination from Sept. 24, 2012, to March 25, 2013, for a slice of the payout.

“Hispanic and women farmers who believe they have faced discriminatory practices from the USDA must file a claim by March 25, 2013 in order to have a chance to receive a cash payment or loan forgiveness,” Vilsack explained in a statement Monday. “The opening of this claims process is part of USDA’s ongoing efforts to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure fair treatment to all current and future customers.”

In February 2011, Vilsack announced the historic “path to justice for Hispanic and women farmers” to offer them an outlet to receive compensation for past wrongs without having to go to federal court.

This is the third settlement to interest groups the USDA is believed to have discriminated against during the Obama administration.

“When I was sworn in as secretary of Agriculture two years ago, President [Barack] Obama and I made a commitment to mend USDA’s troubled civil rights record,” Vilsack said in 2011 statement. “Since then, we have taken comprehensive action to turn the page on past discrimination. Last year we entered into a settlement with black farmers in Pigford II to address pending claims, and finalized a historic settlement agreement with Native American farmers under Keepseagle that faced discrimination by USDA.”

The $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement — which covered black farmers who charged that the USDA had discriminated against them when applying for loans from 1981 to 1996 but missed the filing deadline in the original 1999 Pigford settlement (named for the lead plaintiff, Timothy Pigford, in a class action lawsuit against the government) — made headlines in 2011 for the allegations of fraud in the program.

The Keepseagle settlement made $760 million available to Native American farmers and ranchers who believe they did not receive the same farm loan opportunities as whites between 1981 and 1999.

The USDA plans to engaged in outreach through mail, media, and community advocacy groups to ensure that those eligible are aware of the claims process. The agency has print, video and audio outreach messages in English and Spanish on its website.

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Caroline May