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Sowing the Seeds of “Meaningful Access”: How Federally Financed Farming Programs Can Help Recent Immigrants

Sowing the Seeds of “Meaningful Access”: How Federally Financed Farming Programs Can Help Recent Immigrants

Laura Hartz 

In 1862, President Lincoln authorized the formation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); two years later, at a time when almost one out of two Americans lived on farms, he would dub the agency “The People’s Department.”[1] Although the proportion of the United States population living on farms today has shrunk,[2] the Department’s importance continues to grow as it “provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues” for millions of Americans. [3] The People’s Department, however, does not serve all Americans equally.

The USDA has a history of discriminating against African American, Native American, and female farmers in the distribution of federal funds.[4] Moreover, while the United States currently has 3.2 million farmers, only 14% of the principal operators are female.[5] Of these 3.2 million farmers, approximately 150,000 (less than 5%) are principal operators of Hispanic, American Indian, Black, or Asian heritage.[6] Because of this history and disproportionately small percentage of female and minority farmers, USDA programming that targets minority groups poses a potent proposition: USDA may redeem past inequalities at the same time as assisting a highly marginalized minority group, recent immigrants with limited English proficiency.

This Note explores the legal framework governing USDA’s programs targeted towards immigrant and refugee populations whose English proficiency may warrant constitutional protections under national origin status. The Note starts by outlining civil rights provisions that require nondiscrimination in state action and the award of federal monies, as applied to USDA funds and the recipients of USDA funds. The Note then evaluates recent litigation stemming from alleged breaches of these nondiscrimination statutes, and recent Executive Branch support of these same statutes. Then, the Note analyzes current USDA agency action with respect to these directives. Finally, the Note outlines possible solutions at the Congressional, Judicial, and Executive Branch level that would guide USDA towards equal treatment of applicants, regardless of skin color, national origin, or other protected characteristic.

Against this backdrop, this Note concludes that the USDA should increase its support of programs that specifically target LEP individuals. Model programs include Maine’s Cultivating Community[7] and the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) New Roots program.[8] Both programs connect immigrants or new Americans to farmer training programs, land to grow food, and venues to sell their produce.[9] The benefits of these programs are incredible: immigrants may once again access culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables, gain independence, exercise entrepreneurial skills, practice participating in the U.S. real estate market, develop credit, and earn income.[10] Because of these diverse benefits, if USDA targeted LEP programming it would diversify and increase programmatic bounty while sowing the seeds of equal programmatic impacts.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] USDA, USDA Celebrates 150 Years (Dec. 31, 2012),

[2] Currently, about 2% of the United States population lives on farms. USDA, USDA Celebrates 150 Years (Dec. 31, 2012),

[3] USDA, About the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Oct. 16, 2015),

[4] Stephen Carpenter, The USDA Discrimination Cases: Pigford, In Re Black Famers, Keepseagle, Garcia, and Love, 17 Drake J. Agric. L. 1, 1 (2012).

[5] USDA, 2012 Census Highlights (Oct. 27, 2015),

[6] Id. (total found by summing minority principal operators for 2012 in Figure 4).

[7] Cultivating Community, (last visited Nov. 14, 2015).

[8] International Rescue Committee, New Roots in America, (last visited Nov. 14, 2015).

[9] Id.

[10] Devon Idstrom, Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Linking immigrants to farming opportunities (Aug. 1, 2003),

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