Current Date: 22 Feb, 2024

White farmer sues Minnesota ag grant program, alleging discrimination

A northern Minnesota farmer says he would've won a state-run lottery last summer for grant dollars to help him buy his dream farm, if only he wasn't a white man. 

In federal court Wednesday in Minnesota, Lance Nistler, of Kelliher in Beltrami County, filed suit against Gov. Tim Walz and the state's agriculture commissioner, Thom Petersen, arguing a state "emerging farmer" grant - which prioritizes funding of historically underserved farmers, such as BIPOC or female producers - violated Nistler's civil rights. 

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"Despite Nistler being the model individual the state ought to be assisting with farm ownership, and despite being one of the first applications picked in the lottery, he lacked the state's preferred skin color and sex," stated Nistler's lawsuit, which conservative legal group Pacific Legal Foundation filed.

The lawsuit's allegation of prejudice against white farmers at the heart of legislation intended to rectify past discrimination against farmers of color resembles other high-profile legal actions and legislative fights in recent years. 

After white farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2021 seeking to block the federal farm agency from extending $4 billion in loan forgiveness to farmers of color (a result of past denial of credit to Black farmers) Congress rewrote the policy so loan forgiveness would flow to producers of all races who could prove they were economically distressed.

In April 2022, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressed then-Cargill CEO Dave MacLennan about the Minnesota-based ag and food giant's Black Farmer Initiative, which sought to boost the number of Black farmers. 

The percentage of U.S. farmers who are Black fell from 14% to 1.4% through the past century. According to the 2018 Ag Census, less than 1% of Minnesota's farmers are people of color. 

To address past wrongs, the Minnesota legislature this past spring enacted an expansion of a popular down payment-assistance grant, making available $1 million in 2023 to new and emerging farmers in up to $15,000 chunks to buy farmland or equipment.

Under state statute, "emerging" farmers encompassed a long list of identities, including indigenous, veteran and urban farmers. The list also included farmers of color and those who are LGBTQ. Nistler, according to the lawsuit, is a lifelong farmer and wishes to purchase 40 acres to grow soybeans, oats and wheat. Nistler's attorneys said he applied for the grant in July. In August, Nistler was the ninth selection in the lottery. 

But, according to court filings, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) - using the grant criterion - rearranged the applications, and Nistler slipped to 102nd on the waitlist. A spokesman for MDA said he'd not yet received notice of the lawsuit and couldn't comment on pending litigation. 

State officials have touted the emerging farmer program at farm events as a tool to recognize and work against past discrimination by federal ag agencies and lending authorities. But such programs, which attempt to reflect historical inequities with modern appropriations, drew some ire last year in St. Paul. 

At a senate taxation hearing in March, Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud, defended the program under questioning from Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who called the program's definition of "emerging" farmers a "reparations-style" approach to lending. Putnam responded that "articulate policies of the past and present" kept non-white farmers out of farmland ownership. 

"We can find a way so ... a retiring farmer can help facilitate the purchase by a Black family from Minneapolis," Putnam said. "Or we can let our land be purchased by Bill Gates and Beijing." On Wednesday, Drazkowski said he wasn't surprised to learn about the lawsuit, calling the program's authors "woke Democrats" and the lottery's criterion "blatantly discriminatory." 

A staffer for Putnam, who chairs the Senate ag committee, said the lawmaker was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon, as he was attending a farmer listening session.

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Excellence Chukwuma Chukwunaedu

Excellence Chukwuma Chukwunaedu

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