Minnesota changes discriminatory grant program following PLF lawsuit

June 06, 2024 | By ANDREW QUINIO

Five months after Minnesota farmer Lance Nistler filed a federal lawsuit with Pacific Legal Foundation’s help, Minnesota removed race- and sex-based preferences from its Down Payment Assistance Grant Program.  

PLF’s participation in Lance’s case raised eyebrows among Minnesota progressives: Writing in the Minnesota Reformer, Sigrid Jewett accused PLF of using Lance “as a pawn in a larger culture war game.” 

“Why would a California firm with two dozen Supreme Court wins be interested in representing a would-be small farmer in Minnesota pro-bono?” she asked. 

Discriminatory government programs 

Pacific Legal Foundation opposes all race- and sex-based preferences in the law: That’s the real reason our firm chose to represent Lance. We oppose discrimination when it comes to selecting members for government boards, admitting students to magnet schools, awarding government contracts, and distributing grants—as in Lance’s case. 

Here are the facts: Minnesota’s Down Payment Assistance Grant Program offers up to $15,000 toward the purchase of farmland. Recipients are chosen through a lottery. But until now, even if you were among the first picked through the lottery—as was Lance, who lives in Northern Minnesota—you could be bumped to the back of the line if you weren’t a racial minority, female, LGBTQIA+, or otherwise designated as an “emerging” farmer by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.  

Despite being chosen ninth in the lottery, which awarded grants to 68 applicants, Lance did not receive a grant. He was bumped from ninth to 102nd on the waitlist, because he is a white male. 

Lance’s story 

Lance grew up on his family farm, milking cows. “They would lose money every year,” he says of the family operation. 

After he left for school, his family sold the cows and switched to farming soybeans, oats, and wheat. Lance’s father and uncle now run the farm. But they’re getting older, and Lance—who worked in HVAC and has a degree in electronic engineering—is interested in buying a 40-acre chunk of the family farm. He’d be the fourth-generation farmer in his family.  

The land isn’t just going to be given to Lance. This is a working farm—and the Nistlers aren’t a wealthy family that can transfer a chunk of land from one generation to the next without a thought. 

“My dad and uncle, they don’t have 401(k)s or anything,” Lance says. “I mean, the land and the equipment, that’s their retirement. This stuff isn’t given away. I’m not just going to get it handed down to me and inherited. It has to be purchased, and it is not cheap.” 

Despite being from a farming family, Lance considers himself a new farmer—he has never owned farmland before, and he has an electronics background. Buying these 40 acres would be a huge step for Lance, planting him in the farming world, which is what Minnesota wanted its grant program to do.  

So the idea that he would have qualified as an emerging farmer if only his skin were a different color struck Lance as wrong.  

“The country we live in, the idea is it’s equal opportunity for everyone,” he says. “And if that’s what it is, then well, why shouldn’t I have the same chances?” 

When Lance filed his lawsuit in January, our complaint argued the discriminatory process violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.  

The complaint continued: 

Nistler brings this lawsuit to vindicate his constitutional right to equal protection of the law. He brings it to give all Minnesotans a fair chance at a difference-making grant program. He brings it in the hope that he will be able to own that small farm in the near future. He brings it because he is not giving up on his dream. 

In May, after Lance called attention to the unconstitutional policy, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed legislation removing the race and sex prioritization from the program. Now Minnesota will treat farmers equally—as the Constitution promises.