USDA begins look forward on equity

Ag department looks beyond history of farmers of color discrimination to create more equitable department.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

March 4, 2022

4 Min Read
african american farmer in corn field

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been plagued in the past several decades with 25,000 claims of discrimination, some in substantial class action suits such as the Pigford and Garcia cases against Africa-American and Hispanic farmers. Recognizing the wrongs of the past, USDA held its first public meeting Feb. 28 of the recently established Equity Commission in its efforts to provide a new foundation for equity and inclusion for the agricultural department.

In opening up the several-hour meeting, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he hopes to receive a set of recommendations for USDA from the commission to ensure farm programs address equity and inclusion concerns. He said it will be a “forward-looking process” to look at the history of what has taken place to provide an opportunity to examine and evaluate how to not repeat that past.

Although there are other avenues for addressing claims of the past class action lawsuits, this has a different focus. “This is not righting wrongs of the past, but preventing wrongs into the future,” Vilsack said.

Authorized by Section 1006 of the American Rescue Plan, the Equity Commission will advise the secretary of agriculture and provide USDA with an analysis of how its programs, policies, systems, structures and practices contribute to barriers to inclusion or access, systemic discrimination, or exacerbate or perpetuate racial, economic, health and social disparities and recommendations for action. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh and Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers, will serve as co-chairs of the commission. 

Goals of equity commission

Rodriguez called Vilsack a “man of integrity” and believes Vilsack and the administration are “anxiously awaiting whatever recommendations” the commission decides upon.  

“We're truly interested in recommendations that will allow permanent change and transformation in this particular area,” Vilsack shares.

The commission will focus on a number of different areas. One is to identify and recommend actions to remove barriers to equitable access and use of USDA programs, policies, system structures and practices including impediments that are internal, external, discretionary or statutory. Another goal is to also recommend actions and solutions that address racial equity issues to expand the assistance and provide support for historically underserved customers and communities for equitable access to USDA programs and services.

The commission also plans to recommend actions and solutions that address broader and more systemic equity issues at USDA. And finally, the group will recommend actions that will ensure USDA is a modern competitive workplace within an organizational culture that prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion and access for its staff and customers alike.

Bronaugh adds she believes the timeline of a final report by the summer of 2023, with interim reports in September 2022 and a final report from the agricultural subcommittee of the equity commission by November of this year, sets up time to implement recommendations within the 2023 Farm Bill. However, she adds nothing prevents USDA from taking into consideration and making changes immediately if warranted and there is authority to do so.

Farmers of color debt relief on hold

One of the major equity offerings of the Democrat-controlled Congress was $4 billion of debt relief to those who have been historically underserved and currently indebted to the USDA. However, 13 lawsuits halted USDA from distributing debt relief. The Build Back Better proposal also included an expanded $6 billion in relief to attempt to address the concerns posed by the lawsuits.

“We are contesting those cases. We are working through the system. And eventually, probably in the near future, we may very well be faced with one or more of those cases being decided,” Vilsack says.

Just days before the commission’s first meeting, the African American Agriculturalist Association demanded Vilsack resign over USDA’s continued handling of racism and inability to improve equity.

A month after the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, the African American Agriculturalist Association’s coalition, backed by over a hundred signatories, submitted a letter to Vilsack urging for swift implementation of the $5 billion debt cancellation and related services provisions of the Act to alleviate the economic devastation caused by the COVID pandemic and exacerbated by decades of systemic racial discrimination by USDA against Black farmers and other farmers of color. They blamed Vilsack for not getting the debt relief out fast enough before the courts halted the payments.

“One of Secretary Vilsack's most egregious decisions was funding 20 nonprofits with $75 million in cooperative agreements from the American Rescue Plan Act, ranging from $2M to $10M, with no oversight, accountability, nor transparency,” the association adds. “Many of these nonprofits have received numerous cooperative agreements from USDA since 2021. Notably, none of the nonprofits that signed our Coalition's letter back in April 2021 received funding; thus, creating a cloud of cronyism and political retribution over the stewardship of the $1B fund.”

In response to the claims, a USDA spokesperson did say the $75 million in partnership agreements announced last December is just an initial down payment. “Building on investments made in 2021, USDA will partner with trusted technical assistance providers to ensure that underserved producers have the additional support they need to access USDA programs. There will be a Request for Applications in the near future that will be open to applicants of all kinds, and organizations from across the country can apply,” the spokesperson says.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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