U.S. judge blocks $4 billion debt relief program for minority farmers

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Grain farmers harvest corn amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Marion, Texas, U.S., July 17, 2020. REUTERS/Adrees Latif - RC2CVH99T88N

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June 24 (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked a part of the Biden administration's federal stimulus relief package that forgave agricultural debts to farmers of color.

A white farmer named Scott Wynn of Jennings, Florida, in May had challenged U.S. President Joe Biden's plans as he faced farm loans and financial hardship during the pandemic. He said the debt relief program discriminated against him by race.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard blocked the government's $4 billion aid package to farmers of color on Wednesday, ruling that the plaintiff had established a "strong likelihood" of the policy violating his right to equal protection under the law.

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Wynn, who is challenging Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act, which provides debt relief to "socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers," is likely to succeed, Howard said in the ruling filed in the Middle District Court of Florida.

The ruling added that "Section 1005's rigid, categorical, race-based qualification for relief is the antithesis of flexibility."

A separate judge in Wisconsin had also granted a temporary restraining order on the debt relief plan on June 10. read more

The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) had planned to start the payments to farmers in June. read more

For decades, USDA employees and programs have discriminated against socially disadvantaged farmers by denying loans and delaying payments, resulting in $120 billion in lost farmland value since 1920, according to a 2018 Tufts University analysis.

Black farmers have been promised relief from federal discrimination in the past, only to be repeatedly disappointed, Lloyd Wright, a Virginia farmer who served as the director of the USDA's Office of Civil Rights in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has said earlier.

He suggests eligible farmers continue paying on loans so that they do not end up being behind if the program is permanently blocked.

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Reporting by Radhika Anilkumar and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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