My family’s cattle ranching heritage dates back to California’s Gold Rush. Today, my wife, Katie, and I are still going strong, and one day we hope to have a ranch of our own that our daughter can inherit.

We also want our daughter to inherit a country where government treats people equally. COVID-19-related federal farm loan forgiveness does just the opposite, treating people as members of their racial group.

Right now, we live and tend cattle on my parents’ ranch in Baker City, Ore. At the same time, we’re buying equipment and building our herd, so we’re ready to start our own farm when we can afford to buy property.

We’ve taken out federal loans to pay for equipment and cattle and which we’re repaying with income from other full-time jobs — Katie works in sales, and I have a job as a railroad engineer. Between our second jobs and the ranch, we easily put in 100-hour workweeks.

As demanding as that had been, it was nothing compared to the pandemic. Meat packinghouses shut down last year, affecting our supply chain. Now we have rising fuel prices, no seasonal workers willing to help with our cattle, and the worst drought in Eastern Oregon’s history.

On top of all that, we have a new baby and more than $200,000 in outstanding loans. It sounds ludicrous, but the reality is that the government considers us good enough for federal farm loans, not loan forgiveness, because we have the wrong skin color.

Katie and I heard about the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and we were excited because the COVID relief funding included $4 billion in loan forgiveness up to 120% of USDA loan amounts.

That would have been life-changing for us.

Then one day, while I was on the tractor — where I listen to news and podcasts — I heard that the loan forgiveness was only for “socially disadvantaged farmers,” which, in the government’s eyes, are racial minority farmers and ranchers.

My first thought was, “Socially disadvantaged farmers? Isn’t that anyone like us who has an FSA loan?”

Farm Service Agency, or FSA, operating loans are designed for people who have already been turned down by other lending institutions and cannot get traditional financing anywhere else. We are in our mid-30s, we didn’t have a lot of cash, and we were still building up equity, so the FSA was our only choice.

If Congress decides to forgive these loans, I’ll cheer them on. But there’s no logic behind the use of race to make that decision.

I may be a rancher, but I also have a history degree and a passion for the bedrock principles of our nation’s founding: fairness, justice, liberty. This loan forgiveness is everything but.

It’s discriminatory and violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection before the law.

To be sure, racial discrimination for any reason is unacceptable. In this case, the government insists it’s making up for the USDA’s past discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers. But the government has already paid billions of dollars to do just that. In any case, past discrimination cannot be remedied with more discrimination.

I credit my wife for what happened next. She and my daughter were shuttling me around to do routine chores, and I told her how farmers in other states are suing to end the USDA’s discrimination. I wanted to do the same in Oregon but suing the federal government seemed too daunting, time-consuming, and expensive.

“I can’t,” I said.

“Yes, you can!” she shot back. “Because right now, you still have a voice in this country and the opportunity and the right to speak your voice.”

The next day, I contacted Pacific Legal Foundation, and soon afterward, Katie and I filed a federal lawsuit.

To be perfectly clear, our lawsuit is not about money, or loan forgiveness, or the hard-working people who would have received it. It’s about equal treatment for all farmers and ranchers and fighting back when the government does the opposite. For us, it’s also about setting an example for our daughter so that she might someday exercise embrace her right as an American to stand up and speak out for her beliefs.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

James Dunlap is a farmer residing near Baker City, Ore.

Recommended for you