Minnesota's top farm official rebuffed allegations of discrimination against a white man in a legal filing made last week.

A lawyer for Thom Petersen, Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner, argued that the claims made by Lance Nistler are untrue. Nistler, who lives in Kelliher, Minn., alleges the state's grant program for so-called "emerging" farmers unfairly pushed his application to the back of the line because he does not represent a protected status.

The white, male farmer last month sued Petersen and Gov. Tim Walz in federal court for discrimination. Walz was dropped from the lawsuit last week.

In a response to the charges, Petersen, who was appointed by the DFLer Walz, said that while the Beltrami County man had been picked ninth overall in a lottery last summer that awarded dozens of applications, the plaintiff's identity as a white male did not account for why he is currently waitlisted for funding.

Even if the applicant had been a person of color or a woman, wrote Christina Brown, an attorney with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office representing Petersen, the farmer would "still need to meet additional documentation and purchase requirements prior to receiving funding."

Moreover, Nistler, according to the filing, has not suffered any "cognizable injury." The state asked that the judge throw out the lawsuit.

At the center of this lawsuit is Minnesota's down payment assistance grants, which are administered by Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Rural Finance Authority (RFA). The grants provide funding for farmers making less than $250,000 and who've never owned land. The grantees can spend the funds on agriculture property ranging from cropland to a hog barn.

The RFA first held a lottery for $500,000 — distributed in up to $15,000 chunks — in January 2023. Given the program's popularity, lawmakers doubled the funding to $1 million for both 2023 and 2024. According to court filings, Nistler applied last summer.

After updates to the program were made by the 2023 legislature, applicants are weighted more favorably if meeting a definition of "emerging farmers" that includes women, military veterans, disabled persons, Indigenous people, farmers of color or producers who identify as LGBTQ, among other categories.

Also eligible are Minnesotans who are defined as "young," that is, under 35 years of age, or who live in an urban area, defined as cities with more than 5,000 people. Applicants must also close on a purchase within six months after the grant is awarded.

In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census, released last week, Minnesota counts more than 114,000 farmers across the state. More than 99% of them are white and nearly 70% are male.

A MDA spokesman told the Star Tribune the state plans to continue with the down payment assistance grant in the 2024 funding cycle.