For farmers, when disaster strikes, they could go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get an emergency loan to save a crop or a herd of cattle.
But not if you are a woman, or Hispanic, or Native American, or Black it seems.
Native American rancher Pete Fredericks said he still hasn't recovered from a brutal winter nearly 30 years ago that wiped out half his cattle, reports the Associated Press. His ranch is on the Fort Berthold Reservation. White ranchers in the region fared better because they got financial help from the federal government, he says.
Larry and Robert Chavarria were third-generation farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley, who said their family had never sought a loan until 1994 winter storms decimated their crops, reports the Washington Post. They sought USDA loans but were repeatedly denied. They eventually were forced to sell the farm.
These are just two stories of farmers who faced alleged discrimination by the USDA.
Black farmers won a 1997 civil rights settlement because of discriminatory loan practices by the USDA. During the George W. Bush presidency, though, the government's aggressive legal undermined the settlement by withholding and denying the compensation to almost nine out of the 10 Black farmers in the class action suit.
But with the new Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, minority and women farmers are cautiously hopeful they will get redress.
In the 2008 farm bill there are provisions to extend the deadline for Black farmers to file claims, and for pending discrimination lawsuits against the USDA be resolved in "an expeditious and just manner." The bill also calls for increased outreach and reporting requirements for minority participation in the USDA loan programs, according to the Washington Post.
Agriculture Department spokesman Caleb Weaver told the Post, "USDA is committed to ending all forms of discrimination and addressing past allegations in a timely and fair manner."
He also said the department is reviewing civil rights complaints and "for the first time since 1997, we will have investigators on staff to do the field work needed to investigate complaints."
USDA's civil rights office was abolished during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Under the Clinton administration it was re-established, but seemingly ignored during the Bush administration.
According to the news reports, Native American farmers, like their African American counterparts, are legally considered a "class." Their lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack (formerly Veneman, Bush's agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman), is a class-action suit. But Hispanic and women farmers were denied such status. So these farmers have to bring suit individually. The class status decisions are being appealed.
Garcia v. Vilsack is the name of the case that is on appeal to the Supreme Court to become a class action suit. According to a petition issued by Justice for Hispanic Farmers, Lupe Garcia is a third generation Hispanic farmer who has been fighting since 2000 for equality, accountability and transparency with the USDA loan program.
Besides needing loans in disaster situations, farmers often need operating loans to stay in business, whether it's for an irrigation system or other necessary equipment.
The New Mexico-based Garcia family repeatedly applied for operating loans. Despite positive cash flow, profitability and sufficient collateral, they charge, they were repeatedly denied loans eventually forcing the Garcias to lose their farms.
Other Hispanic farmers have similar stories.
In a recent letter to the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennett, urged the senate leader to continue efforts in pressing the administration to negotiate with the farmers. According to the letter, the USDA has been "reluctant" to negotiate since they lack a class action certification and farmers may run up against the statute of limitations. Currently there are just over one hundred suits being brought against the USDA, but with class action status it could grow to 80,000.
For women, a bill was introduced Dec. 10 by House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., which could bring a settlement of their discrimination lawsuits filed in 2000, according to AgWeek.
Farmers Rosemary Love, of Montana, Gail Lennon of California and Lind Weaver of Florida, greeted the bill.
In 1981, Love applied for and initially was denied a farm operating loan, and later when she did get a loan, it was half the requested amount, with liquidation of her farm as a requirement of the loan, according to AgWeek.
"In 1983, when she was undergoing surgery for cancer, a county Farmers Home supervisor came to the hospital and demanded payment of the loan, she said. Love managed to hold on to her farm, and in 1987, filed a gender discrimination case against USDA. In 1998, a government investigator found that Love had been subject to unfair treatment, but USDA has never resolved the case," AgWeek writes.
Weaver was subjected to overtly sexual harassment from her loan officer. And Lennon was flat out told that she couldn't get a loan because she was a woman and pregnant.
Lennon said trying to hold back tears that discrimination "hurts, it wounds, it has broken many spirits. Discrimination has gone on too long," AgWeek writes.