VELARDE — Felipe Martinez recalls his father, a lifetime farmer, was never told about federal aid that white farmers enjoyed.
Ignoring ethnic minorities who work the land is part of the racism that was long embedded in the U.S. Department of Agriculture until recent years, said Martinez, a grower and former Rio Arriba County commissioner.
“In my dad’s situation, I think that the agency did a very poor job at communicating to rural Hispanic and Native American communities about these programs,” Martinez said.
Some of the farm assistance was created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, so it has been around nearly 100 years, but nonwhite farmers historically were excluded, Martinez said.
Now, in an effort to confront what advocates say is a decadeslong injustice, the department is offering debt relief to “socially disadvantaged” farmers — or those who belong to ethnic groups that have suffered discrimination.
The relief is being offered through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to eligible producers who received loans from the agency before Jan. 1, Liz Archuleta, the agency’s intergovernmental affairs director, told a group gathered Wednesday at Velarde Orchards, 40 miles north of Santa Fe.
The agency will pay up to 120 percent of the farmers’ loan balances as compensation for its longtime and well-documented racial inequity, Archuleta said.
“Socially disadvantaged farmers have faced discrimination at USDA,” Archuleta said. “Sometimes overt, sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies.”
The systemic racism has prevented socially disadvantaged farmers from achieving as much as their white counterparts, she added.
About $4 billon has been allocated to this debt-relief program. New Mexico has 400 to 500 borrowers who qualify, Archuleta said.
Nationally, more than 14,400 such farmers have almost $2.7 billion in active loans, according to the agency’s data.
In the past 30 years, Black, Native American and Hispanic civil rights groups have sued the agency for racial discrimination. But settlements “did not address the systemic and cumulative impact of discrimination over a number of decades,” Archuleta said.
More recently, the racial disparity was spotlighted during the coronavirus pandemic when white farmers received about 99 percent of the federal financial aid that was dispensed to ease economic effects, Archuleta said.
But ethnic groups aren’t the only ones suing. Aggrieved whites have filed two different lawsuits challenging the debt relief for minority farmers, claiming it’s reverse discrimination.
The lawsuits are based partly on a rule change that no longer includes white women in the socially disadvantaged category.
One lawsuit, filed by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller as a private action, challenges the constitutionality of race-based debt relief. Five Midwest farmers have filed the second one, arguing it’s unfair they should be denied loan forgiveness because they are white.
Archuleta briefly referred to the lawsuits Wednesday; she said the agency is working with the U.S. Justice Department to respond to them.
In the meantime, the agency will make loan payments to farmers, she said.
Eddie Velarde, the orchard’s owner, said he is applying for the debt relief and will encourage anyone he knows who’s eligible to do so.
“This is a one chance in a lifetime — it’s not going to come again,” Velarde told the group.
After the meeting, Velarde said he needs the assistance to get through hardships caused by the pandemic and drought.
He estimates he lost about 80 percent of his normal sales during the pandemic as schools, restaurants and other fruit buyers shut down.
His sales for apples, cherries, pears, nectarines, plums and other fruit fell to 400,000 pounds from 1.6 million. He called it a devastating blow and said he was forced to discard a huge amount because there was no place to sell it.
He went from 18 employees to six. But he’s not giving up hope.
“I’m looking for a better year,” Velarde said.
Teddy Salazar, another area farmer, has about 8½ acres on which he grows a variety of fruit and vegetables, including peaches, apples, cherries, broccoli and cauliflower.
This federal aid will relieve a good portion of his debt, he said, allowing him to recover from the pandemic and even expand his operation.
“We were kind of shut down,” Salazar said. “We had a hard time trying to sell our produce. The schools were closed.”
Felipe Martinez said compensation for systemic bias is fair and long overdue.
Nonwhite farmers have been treated more fairly in the past 10 to 15 years, Martinez said. But you only have to go back 20 years to find prejudice against people of color within the federal farm system — and some of it was overt, he said.
He said he witnessed federal loan officers reject Hispanic farmers before they had a chance to fill out documents to formally apply.
White producers were introduced to the best technology, such as irrigation and harvesting equipment, while Indigenous and Hispanic growers were never given access to it, Martinez said, adding you can see evidence of it throughout Northern New Mexico.
“All our rancher families have been doing everything the hard way for the longest time,” Martinez said.