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August 14, 2023

Pingree pushes for female farmers to get USDA discrimination settlement money

Women farmers holding crops File photo / Jim Neuger Habiba Salat and Maryan Mohamed are Somali Bantu farmers at Liberation Farms in Wales, a rural community about 10 miles northeast of Lewiston.

Farmer-turned-lawmaker U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine 1st District, and two fellow Democratic female representatives are putting pressure on the federal Department of Agriculture to ensure money intended to compensate women farmers for past discrimination actually reaches them.

The demand comes about a year after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $2.2 billion in financial assistance for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners who experienced discrimination in federal farm lending programs before Jan. 1, 2021.

To settle claims, the U.S. Judgment Fund provided $1.33 billion, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $160 million for female and Hispanic farmers. 

Nearly 54,000 claims were filed for cases of discrimination that occurred before 2000. But an audit by the Office of the Inspector General found that USDA only compensated about 3,200 claimants and expended only about $207 million, while dismissing nearly 60% of claims due to paperwork errors, according to the Aug. 11 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Besides Pingree, the two-page letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel of Florida, who chairs the Democratic Women’s Caucus, and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut.

“Now, women farmers, ranchers and foresters have another opportunity to apply for just compensation for past discrimination by USDA,” they wrote.

Discrimination covered include race, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, marital status, disability and reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.

“It is imperative that USDA conduct robust outreach to all eligible women farmers, including women farmers when administering the settlement fund,” the lawmakers said in their letter. “With the rapidly approaching deadline of Oct. 31, 2023 to file claims, we must ensure there are focused efforts to reach all those who have experienced discrimination.

The pleas comes amid a growing crop of female farmers nationwide and in Maine, where around 44% of the state’s 13,414 agricultural producers in 2017 were women, compared to 36% nationally.  

The letter went on to say that while money alone cannot make up for the lifelong impacts of discrimination, “USDA cannot repeat the mistakes of past settlement processes that have left tens of thousands without recompense due to technicalities.

“We urge USDA to contact the women who had previously submitted discrimination claims and provide targeted outreach to additional women who have experienced discrimination since 2000.”

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