RUTLEDGE, Minn. — Two Pine County farms, less than 40 miles apart as the crow flies, are on opposite sides of a debate over racial discrimination in U.S. agriculture that's flaring anew but has deep roots in the nation's history.

Outside the small town of Rutledge, Harold Robinson and Angela Dawson joined Minnesota's tiny roster of Black farmland owners a few years ago with a 40-acre land purchase that they built into a small hemp farm and cooperative without government assistance. The acreage was symbolic: "Forty Acres and a Mule" was a post-Civil War military policy that briefly transferred ownership of farmland to people freed from slavery. White owners quickly re-seized most of it.

"It felt exactly like a sign," Robinson, a wiry Army veteran and former Hennepin County deputy, said as he stood among tall, fragrant hemp plants in one of their new greenhouses.

Just a short drive south, near Pine City, Jon Stevens farms row crops and raises cattle on about 750 acres. He borrowed heavily to buy land and equipment, and owed more than $270,000 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as of April, he wrote in a recent affidavit.

Stevens and six other white Minnesota farmers are among the plaintiffs in a series of federal lawsuits aiming to block the Biden administration from distributing $4 billion in USDA loan forgiveness to farmers of color.

"Just because you're white doesn't automatically mean you can pay your bills," Stevens said.

Federal judges paused the loan forgiveness program over the summer, a win for the conservative legal foundations driving the lawsuits and a setback for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's effort to rectify the USDA's well-documented pattern of government neglect toward farmers of color.

But the agricultural sector continues its reckoning with the kind of institutional biases and equity gaps that are also being confronted by leaders of government agencies, businesses, schools and other walks of life.

Robinson and Dawson don't have a direct stake in the legal skirmish over the loan program. The USDA's Farm Service Agency denied Dawson's application for small loan a couple years ago, she said, citing a delinquent student loan payment in her past. But she was dismayed to learn a few months ago that another farmer in Pine County was part of the legal assault on a program she sees as a drop in the bucket to undoing discrimination.

"It's like, is this the first time you were ever upset about discrimination? When you perceived it was happening to a white person?" Dawson said.

Few farmers of color

The last USDA Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2017, found Minnesota had a grand total of 39 Black farmers, compared to 110,824 who are white. Numbers of other farmers of color were also very low. The state overall is about 76% white as of last year's general census, but its farmers are 99% white.

Predating the Biden administration's push to help farmers of color were efforts by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who took office in 2019 with similar vows to increase opportunities in an industry of aging white men and daunting barriers to entry not just for people of color but the young, women and others with nontraditional backgrounds.

"Most farmers in Minnesota look exactly like me — white, 50-something-year-old male," state Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said. Soon after taking office in 2019, he brought on Patrice Bailey as an assistant commissioner, the highest-ranking Black person ever in the small state agency.

Early on, Bailey asked Petersen if he'd consider removing the photos of his predecessors, all white men, that adorned a wall of the leadership offices in the department's St. Paul headquarters.

"I told Thom, if an employee of color or a woman comes upstairs, that picture says you're not welcome," Bailey said. They replaced it with a plaque that lists names only.

In early October, Bailey joined in a meeting of the department's Emerging Farmers Working Group. In the last two years, the Legislature authorized both the working group and an Emerging Farmer's Office — the first of its kind in the country, Bailey said.

At the meeting, Janssen Hang, co-founder and executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, said opportunities in farming are shifting ever more toward small- to midscale growing operations. "That's on us to make sure it's inclusive," he said.

Hindolo Pokawa an immigrant from Sierra Leone who works with the Midwest Farmers of Color Collective, pitched a research project on cover crops he's working on at the University of Minnesota that's paying farmers of color a $400 stipend to participate. Naima Dhore, an organic produce farmer who founded the Somali American Farmers Association, said small independent operations like hers struggle to pay the myriad costs associated with expanding capacity and marketing products.

"I can't keep pulling into Target parking lots to meet my customers," Dhore said. "I need to move forward and expand and reach out to more people so I can sell more produce. I hope resources are included for emerging farmers like myself."

More federal money is on the way: Next year, Walz and the Legislature will divvy up $1.5 billion in additional American Rescue Plan money. Peder Kjeseth, the department's chief lobbyist, said Walz would seek additional grants for emerging farmers.

'I met a farmer'

Dawson and Robinson met at a bar in downtown Minneapolis six years ago. Dawson was in law school and Robinson, who'd done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was working as a truck driver and living on a farm in Wisconsin.

"I remember I called my girlfriend the next day and said, 'I met a farmer!'" Dawson recalled.

Robinson spent part of his childhood on a farm in northern Iowa. Dawson's father farmed for a time before she was born, in southeast Iowa. But none of the family members who worked the land owned it.

Deep in student debt, Dawson left law school and headed with Robinson to Oregon in the summer of 2017 to learn about legal hemp farming, immediately grasping the profit potential. They returned to Minnesota on rented land in Sturgeon Lake, with plans to start an organic hog farm. "Get a $50,000 micro-loan and we'd be off to the races," Dawson said.

After getting denied, Dawson and Robinson sold their hogs and bought an 8-acre property along the Kettle River that includes their house, several outbuildings, a greenhouse and a few small animal pens. They acquired the nearby 40 acres soon after, and they got the hemp farm up and running.

"We're bootstrapping it," Robinson said.

40 Acre Co-op now has 30 active members, who paid a one-time fee of $500 to join, and a long waiting list, Dawson said. The venture helped raise seed money for their fledgling hemp farm while mentoring and providing resources to disadvantaged farmers with similar ambitions.

"We want people who are ready to start farming," Dawson said. "We're prioritizing people who are ready to grow, who want to start making money off their land."

Before joining up with the other white plaintiffs, Stevens was most known in Minnesota ag circles as a zealous advocate for the environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture. He's recorded a series of YouTube videos on the practice and even hosted Walz on his farm for a water quality event.

"There's a little bit of hippie stigma. I used to think it myself," Stevens said of regenerative agriculture. His parents owned the land he once farmed, he said, but he bought it rather than inherited it from them.

The program Stevens and fellow plaintiffs take issue with would pay up to 120% of direct or guaranteed loan balances for Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American or Pacific Island farmers. Their lawyers say there's ample legal precedent that bars the federal government from distributing money in that fashion.

"Court ruling after court ruling has found that our Constitution is color blind," said Dan Lennington of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who's representing the plaintiff group that includes Stevens.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits. The team representing the USDA has asked the courts to combine all the cases into one for the purposes of defending the program. That request is pending, and the legal fight is likely to stretch months or longer.

Even if the program is upheld, advocates for farmers of color say federal and state governments should do much more to break down racial barriers given that too many farmers never qualified for loans in the first place.

More recently, Dawson said, USDA officials have been more solicitous. But she's reluctant to apply for a government loan again, and Robinson is against it.

"Look what we've done without any of their help," he said.