USDA Deputy Pick Faces Calls to Aid Rural Communities (1)

  • Bronaugh was first Black woman as state agriculture head
  • Black farmers ‘in desperate need of some action': advocate

(Adds Bronaugh tweet in 11th paragraph. A previous version corrected a reference to low commodity prices and participants in a Dec. 22 meeting with Vilsack.)

President Joe Biden‘s administration, brimming with historic firsts, could see another if his pick for agriculture deputy secretary, Jewel Bronaugh, is confirmed to fill the role.

Bronaugh would be the first Black woman in the post. She’ll face a farm economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump‘s trade wars, and erratic weather. Net farm income jumped last year to its highest level since 2013, but much of that is credited to direct government farm payments issued due to Covid.

Black leaders in the farm and food realm hope she would advance policies that help marginalized agriculture producers and rural communities.

Andrew Williams, CEO of the Deep South Food Alliance and the United Christian Community Association, sees a demand for better access to capital, irrigation, labor, and improved broadband, along with incentives for younger generations to stay in rural America. He lives in west-central Alabama, part of a rural region with a low median income, referred to as the Black Belt.

Savi Horne, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention Project, characterized Bronaugh as having both “the credentials and the chops” for the deputy secretary role, and said her confirmation would be “momentous for the department and for us working in agriculture.”

Bronaugh would serve as the Agriculture Department’s No. 2 under secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, who was advanced Tuesday to the full Senate for confirmation after the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee voted to report him favorably. Vilsack, who previously served under President Barack Obama, would replace Sonny Perdue, while Bronaugh would succeed Stephen Censky.

Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) praised Biden’s pick of Bronaugh, saying, “As the first woman of color to serve in this position, she will be an important voice as the Biden administration works to address the many challenges facing our farmers, families, and rural communities.”

The White House and USDA didn’t immediately respond to requests for further comment.

Photographer: Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) speaks during a Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture nominee.

‘Watching for Results’

Bronaugh most recently served as the nation’s first Black woman state agriculture commissioner. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appointed her to the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department post in April 2018.

The next year, she spearheaded the Virginia Farmer Stress Task Force to offer resources and promote awareness of farmer mental health challenges. Bronaugh described the goal of creating “a comprehensive network of health providers, peer groups, services from faith-based organizations, and others to help Virginia farmers cope with stress and mental health,” she said in a statement last October.

Following her nomination, Bronaugh thanked Biden “for the opportunity to promote U.S. agriculture, helping to end hunger in the U.S. and abroad,” she said in a Jan. 18 tweet.

The American Farm Bureau Federation hopes, at the federal level, Bronaugh will continue her past work addressing mental health in rural communities, President Zippy Duvall said in a Jan. 18 statement.

He pointed to Bronaugh’s professional experiences as having “established her as someone who understands the needs of America’s farmers and ranchers.”

Major farm groups, including the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union, have supported the nominee.

Before her stint in state government, Bronaugh worked as executive director of Virginia State University’s Center of Agriculture Research, Engagement, and Outreach; state executive director of the Virginia Farm Service Agency; and dean of Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, among other jobs.

John Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association and a fourth-generation Virginia farmer, said he’ll be “watching for results” from Vilsack and Bronaugh, if confirmed.

Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Vows to End USDA Race Inequities

His list of priorities for the pair include settling the backlog of civil rights cases at the agency and addressing discrimination in farm loan and rural development programs, along with farm subsidy programs on the distribution level through county offices.

“We’re in desperate need of some action here,” Boyd said in a Jan. 29 telephone interview. “Black farmers are looking for answers right now.”

Biden’s choice of Vilsack raised concern among some Black farmers, including Boyd, who previously said he wasn’t aggressive enough under Obama in sparking systemic change for Black and minority farmers.

Horne of the Land Loss Prevention Project was among the representatives of Black farm organizations who met with Vilsack on Dec. 22 to discuss matters such as discrimination they’ve faced in trying to gain access to agency programs and assistance.

Horne described herself as “optimistic,” and said she left the meeting “feeling that he was about getting stuff done” on civil rights and climate change, among other issues.

Vilsack pledged to “fully, deeply, and completely” eradicate discrimination within the agency at his committee confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Bronaugh follows in the footsteps of Mike Espy, the first Black agriculture secretary, who gave up his Mississippi congressional seat to also become the first USDA head from the Deep South in 1993. He was forced out of office the following year by allegations he improperly took gifts from businesses and lobbyists. Espy, acquitted at trial, claimed vindication and called the special prosecutor in the case a “schoolyard bully.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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