Julia Senzon/Sun News Editor

Minority farmers like Carlos Aguilera and Lorena Mendoza, the owners of Ithaca's West Haven Farm (pictured) are applying for grants for farmers who have experienced discrimination while applying for loans.

October 4, 2023

USDA Program Aims to Provide Compensation to New York Minority Farmers, Redress Past Discrimination 

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The United States Department of Agriculture has asked Windsor Group, a business focused on providing professional services and business solutions to federal government agencies, to facilitate a $2.2 billion USDA program allocated through the Inflation Reduction Act for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners who have experienced discrimination before Jan. 1 2021. 

The USDA’s funding, termed the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program, emerged from years of documented examples of discrimination against minority — defined as women, veteran, Asian, Black, Latino and/or Native American — farmers, including denying them access to low-interest rate loans, loan servicing, grant programs and assistance, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss and record-breaking land loss through foreclosures. 

Alan Blankstein, the New York State manager for the Windsor Group, expressed farmers’ concerns with applying for USDA funding.

“It’s to be an open door process for facilitating anyone and everyone who has some kind of claim of a legitimate claim of discrimination, especially around USDA funding,” Blankstein said. “There are different levels of discrimination. The obvious ones are when they’re turned down for the loan; the less obvious ones are when they received the loan way too late. They may have lost their whole crops because they didn’t have the tractor. On the other end of the spectrum, they may have been dissuaded from even applying.”

Any farmer who can provide specific evidence that they have experienced discrimination in USDA farm lending before Jan. 1, 2021 is eligible to submit applications for compensation to the USDA. Farmers, ranchers and forest owners are permitted to provide additional evidence to support the claim of their discrimination and a full description of their experience to make their application stand out. Submitting information through the application form is all that is required to be considered. 

On Sept. 22, 2023, the USDA extended the deadline to apply for the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program from Oct. 31 to Jan. 13, 2024, in response to feedback from potential applicants requesting more time to apply.

Discrimination for this program means treating some people differently from others for illegitimate reasons. The USDA defines discrimination to include people having been treated unequally because of race, color, national origin or ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, marital status or disability or in reprisal/retaliation for prior civil rights activity. 

The USDA has hired Windsor Group to assist New York farmers in applying for compensation, with offices located in Ithaca and Liberty, New York. Members of the Windsor Group have appeared at farmer’s markets and events throughout the state in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extensions and members of the New York State Department of Agriculture to maximize reach. Applicants can receive up to $500,000 in payments with no repayment requirement.

Myles Caggins, spokesman for the Windsor Group and the eastern region of the USDA’s Discrimination Financial Assistance Program, told The Sun how Windsor Group will allocate the payments.

“The amount of the payment is being determined by the discrimination experienced by the farmers and its impact on that farmers’ operations as articulated or conveyed in the application process,” Caggins said. 

According to Caggins, Windsor Group is working to combat predatory lawyers attempting to coerce farmers into signing away part of the financial assistance by charging filing fees. 

“We make the emphasis that the technical assistance provided is free,” Caggins said. “In the history of discrimination, there have been class action suits, where… attorneys have come in and helped people file to be part of those suits. And some of the arrangements have just taken so much money from the farmers.”

Caggins emphasized that Windsor Group is a woman-owned, veteran-owned, disabled-owned small business, focusing primarily on government solutions or government staffing. 

“This is a unique historic opportunity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an attempt to provide recompense of this sort in this magnitude to so many people who have experienced discrimination,” Blankstein said. “I am very optimistic in this part. There are lots of things to be concerned about in life and this is a ray of hope for those who do apply. I hope that they put aside any qualms or cynicism.”

Carlos Aguilera and Lorena Mendoza, the owners of West Haven Farm — located in Ithaca — have applied for financial assistance through Windsor Group. The two grew up in Central Mexico and immigrated to the U.S., where they have been farming since 2012. The couple had three separate instances where they applied for farm business loans and were rejected each time.

“There was no explanation on why,” Aguilera said. “We weren’t even asking for that much money, and when they asked for less money, they said no, they couldn’t give us that either.”

Aguilera expressed his hesitation in applying for this compensation.

“Why would the government be looking for us to compensate us for not giving us a loan in the first place?” Aguilera said. “Minority folks like us… are very skeptical, because we feel not only being discriminated against, but… there are a lot of organizations out there that are capitalizing on us, and using us as a way of making money for them, not to help our community.”

Aguilera and Mendoza ultimately decided to apply for the compensation after receiving an email from Windsor Group’s Ithaca office including the name of another local farmer, a friend of theirs, saying that they might qualify for the program. After researching the Windsor group further, meeting with them and thoroughly reviewing their website, Aguilera and Mendoza decided that Windsor group was legitimate. 

If granted the funding, Aguilera and Mendoza said they intend to use it to pay off debts they have acquired through the purchase of their existing farm and to build the infrastructure they need to farm. 

Over 1,000 people have submitted to Windsor Group throughout the Eastern U.S. Applicants may be women, veterans, Asian, Black, Latino and/or American Indian farmers. The application must be submitted online or, for U.S. mailing, postmarked by 11:59 p.m. Pacific time on Jan. 13, 2024. Applications submitted in person at a regional office must be delivered by 8 p.m. local time on Jan. 13, 2024.

Correction, Oct. 6, 5:18 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Black Farmer Ecosystem was working in partnership with the Windsor Group. It also stated that the Windsor Group helped distribute the funds, when they are a facilitator. The Sun apologizes for these errors.