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Is the Biden administration stirring up race wars among ranchers in the West?

Deseret News logo Deseret News 7/8/2021 Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Reyes Carballo loads feed for his cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo loads feed for his cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

He was a racehorse jockey fed up with the meager diet and hungry for something more.

On the way to Denver, looking for a new life, a snowstorm stranded him in Parowan, Utah.

That’s been decades ago and now he is a successful rancher in southern Utah’s Iron County despite the early skepticism of some neighbors, the strange looks, the whispers and the suspicion. He wasn’t their kind, after all.

Like any calf he has ever flipped to the ground to feel the hot sear of his brand, he hung on and made his mark.

The town, after a while, not only welcomed him — it embraced him.

a man in a desert: Reyes Carballo works on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo works on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

She is a sixth-generation rancher with a young baby who inherited her land from hardscrabble European ancestors that eked out a living on a homestead staked in 1862 in Wyoming.

Like her Parowan counterpart in Utah, she’s endured drought, a volatile beef market, the ever-so-constant rising price of keeping her operation afloat and the unprecedented attack of coronavirus that disrupted the U.S. food supply chain. She’s hung on in a tough ranching business that is her unique legacy because generation after generation, it was passed down from woman to woman.

In March, the Biden administration approved $4 billion in debt forgiveness loans for struggling ranchers and farmers in the United States. Not only would the entire loan be forgiven, but under the program an additional 20% would go to offset any taxes associated with that relief.

Reyes Carballo, the Parowan rancher who runs 300 cattle on 300 acres, could get any federal debt relieved, if he had any and if he chose to. He is a native of Mexico who entered California, got his green card and became a U.S. citizen.

He never took out a Farm Service Agency loan, and thinks the federal debt forgiveness program is wrong.

“That’s what causes racism in our country. When programs like this are implemented, it causes more problems for us minorities,” he told the Deseret News.

a person sitting in a car: Tim, Leisl and Casen Carpenter at their Wyoming ranch where there is more than 500 head of cattle. Leisl Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over a loan forgiveness program that targets minorities and excludes whites. © Tim and Leisl Carpenter Tim, Leisl and Casen Carpenter at their Wyoming ranch where there is more than 500 head of cattle. Leisl Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over a loan forgiveness program that targets minorities and excludes whites.

In Wyoming, Leisl Carpenter inherited a quarter of a million dollars in debt from her grandparents who struggled through the rough times of the 1970s and ’80s. When she was 18 and with no credit history on her side, she took out a loan from the Farm Service Agency as a last resort. She wants to survive, but Carpenter does not qualify for relief under the Biden program.

These two ranchers share simnilar stories of triumph and struggle. They want to feed the country, they want to make a living. There is one thing that divides them under the latest USDA aid plan.

Reyes Carballo is an Hispanic man. Leisl Carpenter is a white woman.

The sign on the federal relief door says Leisl Carpenter, and any other white farmers and ranchers, need not apply.

Racism and ranching

The Biden administration’s U.S. Department of Agriculture was quite plain in its reasoning. It said that for a century, people of color, and particularly ranchers and farmers who were Black, were left wanting when it came to qualifying for any loans. With a wink and a nod, the debt relief door was closed to them. The sign may have said open for business, but not for people of color.

So, in March this year, the debt relief package moved people of color to the front of the line and hung out the sign that says “door closed” for whites. It was bent on correcting what it says is an ugly practice of systemic racism that ran off “socially disadvantaged” people of color.

“The American Rescue Plan has made it possible for USDA to deliver historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers beginning in June,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “USDA is recommitting itself to gaining the trust and confidence of America’s farmers and ranchers using a new set of tools provided in the American Rescue Plan to increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs.”

Reyes Carballo, right, and one of his employees, Lalo Acosta, deliver feed to sheep on Carballo’s ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo, right, and one of his employees, Lalo Acosta, deliver feed to sheep on Carballo’s ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

The department stressed that under a previous COVID-19 relief package during the Trump administration era, 97% of the aid for farmers and ranchers went to those who are white.

“When you look at the COVID relief plans that had been passed and distributed by USDA (in 2020), and you look at who disproportionately received the benefits of those COVID payments, it’s pretty clear that white farmers did pretty well,” argued Vilsack.

Over the years, the number of minorities in ranching and farming has dwindled. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, as of 2017 there are a little more than 2 million ranchers and farmers in the United States, and of those, 95.3% are white. In Utah, those numbers are mirrored.

Agriculture uprising

The Southeastern Legal Foundation and Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of Leisl Carpenter and just recently brought a second lawsuit representing a Tennessee rancher challenging the Department of Agriculture’s farmer and rancher loan forgiveness program. Earlier this month, Colorado rancher Sara Rogers also filed suit challenging the program. She, too, is represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

William Trachman, associate legal counsel for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, said the U.S. Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of race and if it does so, the government must show a compelling interest in a narrowly tailored circumstance.

In the case of the Biden administration’s program aimed at minority farmers, Trachman said the sweeping relief package failed to demonstrate a compelling reason to exclude whites and did not cite any specific instances of racial injustice.

Moreover, the program did not establish that any eligible recipients had to prove actual harm from COVID-19, just that they belonged to the class of “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers.

a close up of a man wearing a hat: Reyes Carballo poses for a photo on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo poses for a photo on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

“This is a very poor way of targeting funds,” Trachman said. “The government is saying we will determine what race you are and based on that, we will cut you a check.”

In a ruling in June in a different case brought by a dozen white farmers and ranchers in multiple states, a federal judge put a temporary hold on the Biden debt relief program, agreeing with Trachman.

“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin,” wrote Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin’s Eastern District.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will vigorously defend its position.

‘We are all minorities’

Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson watched the rollout of the debt forgiveness program made available to minority farmers and his reaction was one of disbelief, sadness and anger.

“I represent 35,000 members in the Utah Farm Bureau and when I look at those families who struggle to survive every day, it’s hard. It is just a slap in the face to hard-working ranchers and farmers in this country who are hurting. I can’t overstate it. I don’t understand why the color of your skin has anything to do with the value of agricultural operations to society.”

Providing food and fiber to the people of the United States is accomplished by just a small percentage of people, Gibson said.

“Production of agriculture in this country is done by just over 1% of the population,” he said. “If that is not a minority, I don’t know what is. We are all minorities.”

Gibson said he couldn’t point out in his membership who may be Black, Native American, Latino, Pacific Islander or something else.

“We’re all struggling. We are all just trying to get by.”

His family has been in the dairy business for 150 years. The tempest that has brought drought, delivered COVID-19, slam-dunked the price of beef, dairy and produce have all put scribbles on the ledger of debt and profit that keeps blood pressure high and nights sleepless. Gibson wonders how the federal government can justify picking winners and losers through such a narrow lens.

“I cannot tell you what happened in the ’40s, in the ’50s, in the ’60s, but I can tell you right now I am a socially disadvantaged farmer if and when I go into the office to get a loan. I am a white farmer and no one wants to help. That is the sentiment all over this country when it comes to farmers and ranchers.”

a person riding a horse in a field: Leisl Carpenter and her son, Casen, survey their ranch in Wyoming. Leisl Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over what she asserts is a discriminatory program that offers loan forgiveness to minority ranchers and farmers, but not whites. © Tim and Leisl Carpenter Leisl Carpenter and her son, Casen, survey their ranch in Wyoming. Leisl Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over what she asserts is a discriminatory program that offers loan forgiveness to minority ranchers and farmers, but not whites.

A tale of two ranchers

Leisl Carpenter and Reyes Carballo have never met. If they could sit down in a hole-in-the-wall cafe over lunch to talk about their love of ranching, the conversation could drift for some time.

She might ask him a few questions.

Has he experienced racism? Is this Biden administration’s program aimed at helping him, but not her, a good thing?

“In my opinion, it should be everybody equal,” Carballo told the Deseret News. “That is where bad feelings start. Hateful thoughts begin with special treatment based on race. Because why would Black people get it, or Latino people get it, but not the hard-working white Americans?”

Carballo said he’s experienced racism. He’d tell Carpenter about how the racist comments and snide remarks stung like an angry bee, and he has the long-lasting welts to prove it.

He says there are some wrong-headed people who harass his employee. He says they ask his worker who is merely gassing up in the city at the local Maverik, “What are you doing in my town?”

He’s been looked at as if he doesn’t belong, even though he’s etched his being into the fabric that makes up this little town of Parowan.

“The government pushes it too hard, making white American people look at us like we are bad dudes. Yeah, there are bad dudes out there, but most of us are good people. ... If they have benefits to help the Americans, it should be benefits for every American. We all suffer the same thing: the same drought, the same losses, the same pandemic. The government keeps creating this ... this division.”

Carballo slipped across the Mexican border into California decades ago. He says the racism he has experienced is worse than ever before.

“I experience more racism now than I did when I came to America as a young boy and started a family and worked here in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and it is because of the unfair treatment” government has given to people of color, he said.

He said it is “handouts” like these who put people like him, a Latino, in a different camp from a woman like Carpenter, who does the same hard job that gets both of them up early in the morning and keeps them up late at night.

Reyes Carballo uses a tractor to distribute feed for his cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo uses a tractor to distribute feed for his cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

“I don’t want a handout. I work for what I’ve got,” he said. “That’s how I ended up where I did, by working to earn it.”

COVID-19 struck the United States, officially, in 2020. It did not consider one’s race, one’s ethnicity, religion, gender, age or income level.

To survive, Carballo’s wife, Kacie Benson Carballo, said she quit her job as a teacher and the family opened a retail meat shop on Main Street.

“The cattle market bottomed out when the big packing houses were closed with COVID,” she said. “We decided to bite the bullet. ... It saved our ranch, really.”

The Dry Lakes Ranch Beef Shop does a brisk business, and Reyes Carballo is dedicated to maintaining his herd of a little more than 300 cattle on 300 acres.

During this busy time of the year, he works from when the sun first cracks open the sky with its promising light, until late in the evening. The routine repeats the next day.

Leisl Carpenter and her son, Casen, at their ranch in Wyoming where the family runs more than 500 head of cattle. Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over a loan forgiveness program that targets minorities and excludes whites. © Tim and Leisl Carpenter Leisl Carpenter and her son, Casen, at their ranch in Wyoming where the family runs more than 500 head of cattle. Carpenter is suing the Biden administration over a loan forgiveness program that targets minorities and excludes whites.

Carpenter balances the work of the ranch with raising her son, Casen. When COVID-19 struck, she was forced to sell off some cattle. She still manages to run about 500 head of cattle on a couple thousand acres.

But it is tough. Her ledger of scribbles, of bottom lines and any profit, grew increasingly grim when the silent coronavirus took the bottom out of the market for beef.

When Biden announced the relief package aimed at farmers and ranchers, where dread once grew on her acres of ranch land, hope took root.

Then she found out she didn’t qualify.

“Debt is common in agriculture. It is hard to find anyone of any skin color who is not plagued by debt, not struggling to get by,” she said. “It just felt like a slap in the face. ... It is a far greater industry than just me. I know of so many people where this could have been a lifeline that changed everything.”

Shared bonds

Carpenter’s case for discrimination has garnered national attention. She wrote a piece for the New York Post. She echoed what Carballo had to say.

“It is true that many minority-owned farms are struggling. But my family’s struggles are no less real, and my family is no less deserving of aid,” she wrote. “We’ve worked just as hard, and our contributions to our nation’s critical food supply are just as important.”

In June, she was on Fox News as Sean Hannity’s guest. Is her “white privilege” getting in the way of equity? Are her sins as a rancher rooted in her roots?

In another state, on another ranch, Carballo gets her pain. They are in this together, even though their stories were woven from a different tapestry. He’s a Latino rancher in the predominantly white state of Utah.

Reyes Carballo hops out of a tractor while working on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo hops out of a tractor while working on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.

Early on, U.S. citizens didn’t understand him, looked askance at him and said he could not be a success. They didn’t know he had been born into a ranching family. It was in his blood.

Carpenter is a white woman running a ranch in a male-dominated industry. What would she know about cattle? The men in town might have known she was born into the ranching industry, but she was a woman after all. They did not know how ranching coursed through her veins.

Skeptics, early on, doubted if she could make a go of it.

The blood of ranching is something unspoken and quiet and underneath the skin. It is an invisible thing that outsiders can’t fathom. Dig the dirt, turn the dirt, let out a cow or two. Not much more to it, right?

Wrong.

Both Carballo and Carpenter proved the skeptics wrong in a big, Western-style way that cuts to the heart of what this harsh business is all about.

Over their hypothetical lunch — and it would be brief because of all the chores left to do — they would share stories of the hardship, the victories, their love of cattle and wide open spaces. They’d talk about their favorite horses, their family and what the future might bring.

He’d see her as a rancher, like him, dedicated to survival. The fact that she is a woman may have given him a chance to marvel, but it did not define her. They are both in the game.

She’d hear about his regaling and entertaining stories of what it took to survive in a little place like Parowan.

The stories would leave an imprint of how hard he had worked to come so far. Carpenter wouldn’t see a man born in Mexico, brown-skinned and somehow getting a leg up on her.

She’d see the kindred spirit of another rancher.

When it came time to leave, they’d both argue over the check. No one was going to make the other one pick up the bill. That’s just how it is with ranchers.

No one knows how the legal challenges to the Biden administration’s debt forgiveness program will play out. Trachman, Carpenter’s lawyer, however is encouraged by an appellate court ruling in Tennessee that pressed pause on a Small Business Administration program that gave advantage to people of color.

As the judge in that case mused: “As today’s case shows once again, the ‘way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’”

a herd of cattle standing on top of a field: Reyes Carballo checks on a cow while distributing feed to cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021. © Spenser Heaps, Deseret News Reyes Carballo checks on a cow while distributing feed to cattle on his ranch in Parowan on Monday, June 21, 2021.
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