Won: Minnesota repealed the discriminatory provision of its grant program.

Lance Nistler is a 37-year-old farmer in Kelliher, Minnesota, who grows soybeans and small grain oats with his father and uncle. Lance is a hard-working entrepreneur who is ready to follow in his father’s footsteps and run a farm of his own. He’s been saving up for a down payment to buy his farm property.

Lance was hopeful when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a new law in May 2023 establishing a $2 million Down Payment Assistance Grant Program to help burgeoning farmers buy farmland. The program, run by the state Department of Agriculture, would disburse half the funds in 2023 and the other half in 2024 in grants of up to $15,000 to qualifying farmers through a lottery held each grant period.

Lance met all of the eligibility requirements related to finances, residency, and the like, and he applied for the first round of down payment grants in July 2023. When the lottery was held the following month, there were 176 applicants; Lance was the ninth overall lottery pick.

But the lottery was rigged, and his position meant nothing. After his lucky draw, he was bumped to the very back of the line for grant assistance because of his skin color and sex.

It turned out the grant program prioritized so-called “emerging farmers” when awarding funds, regardless of the lottery results. The grant’s governing law categorized emerging farmers as racial minorities, women, and young, urban, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. The state first awards grants to all these groups. Any funding that’s left may be awarded to non-emerging farmer applicants in the order of their lottery placement.

As a white man, Lance satisfied none of the qualifying categories for special treatment in the lottery. There were 68 “emerging farmers” awarded grants in 2023, meaning 108 others—including Lance—were bounced onto a waitlist.

Lance filed a federal lawsuit in January 2024. Pacific Legal Foundation represented him at no charge. Prioritizing farmers by race and gender violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, PLF argued. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said government cannot discriminate by race or sex except in very narrow cases of past discrimination—a justification not even invoked during testimony by Minnesota legislators and farmers supportive of the discriminatory classifications.

Five months after Lance filed his lawsuit, Governor Walz signed legislation removing the race and sex prioritization from Minnesota’s Down Payment Assistance Grant Program, restoring equality before the law.

What’s At Stake?

  • It is unfair for the government to advantage or disadvantage anyone for benefits based on immutable characteristics like race and sex. Equal treatment before the law is a bedrock American principle. Lance Nistler seeks to be treated equally with any other prospective farmer.

Case Timeline

January 24, 2024
United States District Court District of Minnesota