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Some farmers and ranchers from marginalized communities previously lost out on Agriculture Department assistance and other opportunities, and a new commission within the agency is tasked with correcting those disparities.
Since 1885, the agency’s policies have largely been shaped by White male leaders. Only one woman and one Black man have filled the role of Agriculture secretary.
The U.S. agriculture industry has a similar profile. More than 96% of the nation’s roughly 2 million farms are run by White producers, while Black farmers claim about 35,000 farms, according the most recent agriculture census, conducted every five years.
Agriculture producers of color have long been hampered by an archaic system that’s deprived them of access to USDA aid and bank loans. The department’s new approach is designed to pinpoint and correct those stumbling blocks.
The USDA is accepting nominations for membership on both its Equity Commission Advisory Committee and its Equity Commission Subcommittee on Agriculture. The advisory committee will work with the secretary on improving access to the agency’s programs and services, and the subcommittee will focus on agriculture specifically.
The department plans to fill both panels with 15 members each, with the nominations open to the public. The agency aims to demonstrate diversity among its ranks by selecting advocates for minorities, women, farm workers, individuals with disabilities, rural communities, small businesses, and others.
In an interview, Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh described the commission as “designed to allow us to begin the process of investigating programs at USDA that specifically focus on systemic impediments to equity.”
She pointed to the loss of land, credit, and market opportunities that farmers of color suffered in the past. Bronaugh will serve as co-chair of the Equity Commission, and she will help select the other co-chair with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The move reflects the Biden administration’s promise to make social justice issues a top policy priority across government. The Agriculture Department in May publicly acknowledged discrimination faced historically by socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Over previous decades, some farmers and ranchers who suffered specific acts of racial discrimination got redress through class action discrimination suits. USDA is attempting this year to offer restitution on a wider scale with a $4 billion debt relief program for disadvantaged farmers. That initiative is stuck in limbo, however, as lawsuits filed on behalf of White farmers resulted in preliminary injunctions in several federal district court cases.
One suit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which represented a dozen farmers and ranchers, argued that each plaintiff would qualify for the federal program loan if not for race.
The agency is moving forward in other areas to promote social justice initiatives.
“This is indeed a different USDA,” said Bronaugh, who is the first Black woman to fill the No. 2 role. “That focus on working with our socially-disadvantaged has been prioritized from the top levels.”
The American Rescue Plan Act (Public Law 117-2) provided funds to establish the equity commission and an extra $1 billion for activities that promote opportunities for underserved agriculture producers.
The Equity Commission will identify agency programs, policies, and structures that present hurdles to inclusion or exacerbate disparities. It’ll create an interim report and make recommendations, with a final report expected in two years.
The Agriculture Subcommittee will give the commission its recommendations on agriculture concerns, with future subcommittees to monitor other policy spheres, including rural communities and economic development.
The department first mentioned the future launch of the commission in June with a Federal Register notice asking for public input on barriers faced by marginalized communities at USDA. It received more than 400 comments, including from Land O’Lakes Inc., the Cherokee Nation, Feeding America, and others.
“We’re doing all that we can to make sure that we make some positive impacts while we’re in leadership at USDA,” Bronaugh said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org