Few Diné farmers eligible for debt relief
In an effort to level the playing field for minority farmers and ranchers, who have historically had a difficult time getting government farm loans, the USDA announced this week it will forgive all outstanding Farm Service Agency loans owed by Native Americans, African-Americans, Latins, Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders.
The program will completely wipe out the $5 billion owed by 14,000 to 15,000 farming families across the U.S., including about 700 families in Arizona and New Mexico, according to Heather Dawn Thompson, director of USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations during a May 27 press call.
And, Thompson promised, the money will be much easier to get than the Keepseagle settlement of 2018, which according to some farmers required a daunting amount of paperwork.
“If you’re a member of one of those (eligible) groups and you have an FSA loan, or a loan from a bank that the FSA backs, it’s pretty much automatic,” she said, noting that every minority farmer who has taken an out an FSA loan will be receiving a letter stating the debt is canceled along with up to 20% in fees. Any amount paid after January of 2021 will be refunded.
The amount available also dwarfs Keepseagle’s $680 million compensation fund, which was also a way to make restitution to Native American farmers who were discriminated against when it came to being approved for farm loans.
The Keepseagle lawsuit was “just one example of the historic inequities” perpetuated by the USDA, said Thompson, who is Cheyenne River Sioux.
However, not a lot of Navajo farmers and ranchers will be eligible for loan forgiveness because very few have FSA loans.
“Most Navajos don’t benefit from the USDA loan programs because they don’t have ‘control of the land,’ which is a prerequisite,” explained Ernest Diswood, who with his wife, Edwina, runs a cattle operation on Moncisco Mesa, New Mexico. “Having a grazing permit on trust land does not constitute control of the land.”
The FSA office in Holbrook confirmed that, saying that, according to its records, only 14 Navajo families in its service area qualify. The Estancia, New Mexico, office, which handles loans on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, couldn’t immediately come up with a number, but it’s presumably higher, with the higher number of allottees in New Mexico.
Thompson admitted there are systemic problems in the FSA that need to be dealt with before there will be true equity in access to federal loans.
“There is a lack of expertise on how to work best with tribal nations,” she said. “For one thing, trust lands are misclassified as federal lands, which puts them in the same category as national parks, so they’re ineligible. Another problem is not knowing how to collateralize loans (to Indigenous farmers).”
For the families who do have loans, however, “This is going to be life-changing,” Thompson said, adding the response she has received from beneficiaries of the program has been “pretty heartwarming.”
“There was one couple, third-generation farmers in their sixties, who are paying off their farm and will be able to give that opportunity to the next generation,” she said. “Another couple, their home was on the market already. They were able to hold onto it and save their farm.”