Minority farmers are suing the federal government for watering down a $4 billion debt relief package aimed at helping the dwindling number of people of color who continue to work the country’s farmlands, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit say the government reneged on its word to black farmers and other minorities when the relief package, initially pushed by Democrats in Congress, was reworked and expanded after white farmers retreated.

“They broke their promise to black farmers and other farmers of color,” John Boyd, a plaintiff and president of the National Black Farmers Association, told NBC News on Wednesday, just before holding a press conference on the matter.

John Boyd, president of the Black Farmers Association, plants winter wheat in one of his fields in Baskerville, Va., Jan. 8, 2019. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images File

The program, which was created by the 2021 U.S. bailout, was intended to help minority farmers repay Department of Agriculture loans and provide other forms of debt relief and assistance to racial and ethnic groups that have been discriminated against by the government in the past. It covered up to 120% of the debts of farmers who were members of groups historically discriminated against because of their race or ethnic origin.

However, the $4 billion was never given to black farmers and other people of color.

For more than 18 months, the money was held up in a court battle, as white farmers and others disputed the allotment they could not access and claimed it was a violation of their constitutional rights.

The original program was eventually superseded in August with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

The new legislation aims to circumvent white farmer grievances and create two new funds while rolling back the original relief package. The first fund would set aside more than $2 billion for farmers and others who face discrimination before 2021. The second provides more than $3 billion to the Department of Agriculture to pay or modify loans to farmers who experience hardship. considerable financial difficulties.

New debt relief funds no longer prioritize black people and other farmers of color.

The plaintiffs claim that the changes are breaches of contract and implied contracts established by the American Rescue Plan. They are asking for damages to be paid to them and to those they represent.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Marissa Perry, said the agency strongly supported the original program and was ready to make payments, but was blocked by three nationwide injunctions from separate court cases. Although it “vigorously” defended the program in court, the department feared that “this litigation has probably not been resolved for years.”

“The Inflation Reduction Act – through the leadership of Sens. Booker, Warnock, Stabenow, Manchin and Schumer – decided to repeal those provisions and craft something new,” said Perry, who has detailed the new funds and added that the agency is “acting aggressively to implement these provisions.”

The number of black and minority farmers has declined sharply over the past century. In 1920, there were more than 925,000 black farmers in the United States, representing about 14% of the farming population, according to analysis of data by consulting firm McKinsey.

They were less than 49,000 in 2020, representing just over 1% of farmers, and they were more likely to generate a net loss, be awarded a long-term production contract and operate on less than land than their white colleagues, McKinsey found.

“This fight is about land,” Boyd said, “because we’ve lost so much of it.”

Jonathan Allen contributed.

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