Kent v. Vilsack

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

Cases > Equality Under the Law > Kent v. Vilsack
Federal lawsuit aims to restore farmers’ equal treatment by government

Ryan Kent is a full-time farmer in Centralia, Illinois, and owner of a 5,000-acre farm started by his father. Like many farmers across the country, he has a federal farm loan with an outstanding balance that caused economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. At first encouraged about a farm loan forgiveness provision in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Ryan was surprised to learn he is not eligible, because he’s white. The law allows loan forgiveness of up to 120%, but only for minority farmers and ranchers, whom 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, Ryan is fighting back to restore his right to equal treatment for all farmers.

Ryan Kent is a full-time farmer in Centralia, Illinois, and owner of a 5,000-acre farm started by his father. Like many farmers in Southern Illinois, Ryan grows soybeans, wheat, and corn on his farm. And like many farmers across the country, he has a federal farm loan with an outstanding balance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted Ryan’s $90,000 loan in 2010 so he could buy an additional 77 acres for his farming operations. Today, Ryan still owes $43,000—an amount that drains a significant portion of his monthly income and, in an industry with low profit margins during normal times, has led to economic hardship for his family during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first encouraged about a farm loan forgiveness provision in Congress’ recent COVID-19 legislation, Ryan was surprised to learn he is not eligible—because he’s white.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides loan forgiveness up to 120% of USDA loan amounts only for minority farmers and ranchers. That is, government is using racial classifications to decide who deserves relief from COVID-19’s economic devastation.

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.

Loan forgiveness program or not, the Kents simply want equal treatment among all farmers. 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.

Ryan, along with Centralia farming brothers Matthew and Joshua Morton, are 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.
  • Illinois farmers seek only to be treated equally. It is unfair for government to distribute benefits and burdens based on a farmer’s race.

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June 07, 2021

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