Reaping what you sow

A Minnesota farmer fights state-sanctioned discrimination.

Thirty-seven-year-old Lance Nistler has a lifelong dream of growing corn, soybeans, oats, and wheat on his own farm in Beltrami County. In July 2023, he applied for a state grant that could help make that dream a reality: the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Down Payment Assistance Grant Program, which was distributing funds of up to $15,000 per person to help Minnesotans buy their first farm.  

It was a stroke of luck that Nistler’s name was pulled ninth out of 176 applicants in the MDA’s lottery. But that’s where his luck ended. Because Nistler didn’t qualify as an “emerging farmer” — he wasn’t female, a person of color, an indigenous person, or LGBTQIA+ — he was sent to the back of the list and the 68 available grants were given to other applicants. His lucky draw meant nothing.  

Now Nistler, aided by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC), is suing the state of Minnesota for violating his 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution by denying him equal protection under the law. 

“Because of where his application was drawn,” the lawsuit states, “Nistler would have received a grant if he was from a ‘community of color’… [or] if he was a woman.”  

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment bars any state from making or enforcing a law that denies a person “equal protection of the laws.” This clause has been used to strike down state discrimination based on race and gender before, including in Brown v. Board of Education.  

When the Down Payment Assistance Grant Program was first instituted in January 2023, applicants were chosen randomly on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to the program’s overwhelming popularity, the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz authorized a second round of grant handouts and doubled funding to $1 million.  

But there was a catch — the administrators at MDA’s Rural Finance Authority now had to prioritize the aforementioned “emerging farmers” when awarding grants. Names were still pulled randomly, but if you didn’t meet their criteria, you were sent to the back of the list — which is what happened to Nistler.  

“Minnesota believes Lance Nistler is less deserving of a farm because he has the wrong skin color and sex,” says Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) attorney Andrew Quinio. “It is unfair for the government to advantage or disadvantage anyone for benefits based on immutable characteristics like race and sex. Lance Nistler seeks to be treated equally with any other prospective farmer.”  

Quinio specializes in Equality and Opportunity at PLF. Two years ago, they fought — and won — a similar case in Cook County, Ill., which ended a racially discriminatory grant program for small business owners after the COVID-19 shutdowns.  

While Nistler’s lawsuit deals specifically with MDA’s Down Payment Assistance Grant Program, the outcome of this case could have implications for other Minnesota programs. As UMLC Senior Counsel James Dickey notes, this “emerging farmer” status is also used to prioritize certain groups applying for a cannabis business license. 

“The State is using race as a tool to determine winners and losers in more than just farming grants,” says Dickey. “They’re calling it ‘social equity’ in the cannabis licensing scheme,” he adds.  

Usually the state will try to dismiss a case like this. But this time, the state answered the lawsuit and admitted to most of what the complaint alleges, according to Quinio.  

Now both parties will enter a fact-finding period before presenting their arguments to a judge.  

Last year, PLF successfully represented Hennepin County resident Geraldine Tyler before the Supreme Court over the county’s seizure and sale of her condo.  

“Minnesota is in the crosshairs for a very good reason, which is that they keep doing things that violate the law,” says Quinio. “I would’ve never suspected a place like Minnesota, known for ‘Minnesota Nice,’ would have this happen.”