Wynn v. Vilsack

Race-based COVID-19 farm loan forgiveness denies equal treatment to farmers

Cases > Equality Under the Law > Wynn v. Vilsack
Active: Federal lawsuit aim to restore farmers’ equal treatment by government

Scott Wynn is a lifelong farmer who has run Wynn Farms in Jennings, Florida, producing sweet potatoes, corn, and cattle since 2006. COVID-19, however, hit the family’s finances hard. Steep drops in beef prices and too little help and supplies to grow sweet potatoes meant less income, nearly all of which went toward federal farm loan repayment. A farm loan forgiveness provision is baked into the COVID-19-driven American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, but Scott is not eligible—because he is white. The law allows loan forgiveness of up to 120 percent but only for minority farmers and ranchers, who the law automatically treats as “socially disadvantaged,” regardless of their individual circumstances. Because government cannot use racial classifications to decide who gets government benefits and burdens, Scott is fighting back to restore his right to equal treatment for all farmers.

A lifelong farmer, Scott Wynn’s livelihood depends on the yields of Wynn Farms, the farm he’s owned in Jennings, Florida, which rests near the Georgia border, since 2006.

For years, Scott has produced sweet potatoes and corn while also raising cattle. COVID-19, however, has wreaked havoc on Wynn Farms. A drop in beef prices has deeply impacted the farm’s revenue. Last year’s COVID-19-related worker shortages and out-of-state travel restrictions also left Scott without enough help or supplies to plant sweet potatoes.

Running a farm is tough enough without a pandemic. Long workdays that start well before sunrise mean little rest for Scott in an industry with very low profit margins—especially for smaller operations like Wynn Farms. But Scott also has federal farm loans of $300,000, so what farm income he does earn goes toward loan repayment.

A farm loan forgiveness provision is baked into Congress’ COVID-19 legislation: the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. But Scott is not eligible—because he’s white.

It turns out the law only provides loan forgiveness up to 120 percent of U.S. Department of Agriculture loan amounts for minority farmers and ranchers. That is, government is using racial classifications to decide who deserves relief from COVID-19’s economic devastation.

The news came as a shock to Scott’s family, and his wife, in particular, who works in the local school system, where posters promoting “equal justice under the law” are commonplace.

The blanket exclusion of white farmers from debt relief purportedly aims to address past discrimination against minority farmers and ranchers by the USDA. These historical wrongs have been previously addressed through administrative and class action settlements. Now, government is trying to combat racial discrimination by mandating more of it.

For the Wynns, it’s a matter of equal treatment among all farmers, whether or not any loan forgiveness program is in place. Instead of a level playing field, they’re forced to farm at a government-sanctioned competitive disadvantage based on something as immutable as race and skin color.

Such racial classifications, however, violate the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said government cannot do this except in very narrow cases of past discrimination.

Scott is fighting back with a federal lawsuit challenging the American Rescue Plan’s unlawful race-based farm loan forgiveness provision.

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What’s at stake?

  • A bedrock American principle is the right to equality before the law. Government violates that when it treats people differently based on irrelevant, immutable characteristics like race.
  • Scott Wynn only seeks to be treated equally. It is unfair for government to distribute benefits and burdens based on a farmer’s race.

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May 18, 2021

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