USDA panel unveils recommendations to resolve discrimination in farming

Associated Press/Charlie Riedel

The US Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission on Tuesday unveiled recommendations to stop discriminatory practices across the agency and in farming.

The report focused on four areas for the USDA to improve: how the agency works with farmers and ranchers; the need for department-wide change; the agency’s commitment to farmers and their families; and reevaluating agency programs.

Reports dating back to the 1960s, the Commission said, “have well documented racial and other forms of discrimination at USDA in program access and delivery.”

“Farmers who are Black, Hispanic, Native American and Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, women, and young, new, or beginning, have disproportionately encountered barriers to accessing critical USDA funding and resources needed to adequately support their agriculture operations, specialty crops/alternative enterprises, and local communities.”

The report, which offered more than 30 recommendations, is designed to offset these historical disparities and advance opportunities for communities of color. 

In one recommendation, the report calls for addressing issues with the Heirs’ Property and Fractionated Land, which identifies access barriers to USDA programs for historically underserved producers, farmers and ranchers. The report recommends providing funding for community organizations helping resolve heirs’ property issues, or land that has been passed down without a deed. 

According to the USDA, many Black Americans acquired land following the Civil War and through the early 1900s by “various means,” resulting in issues with heirs’ property disproportionately affecting African American landholders. Over the last hundred years, Black Americans have lost between 4.7 million and 16 million acres of land. But heirs’ property issues also affects for Latinx families in the southwest, Indigenous families on reservations and low-income families in Appalachia, the USDA adds.  

The Equity Commission also suggested changes to the Census of Agriculture, like changing the definition of a farm and improving language access. It also recommended changing the definition of a “distressed borrower” to include “those that have not yet entered delinquency yet are under financial stress that may prevent them from continuing farm operations.”

But the committee also recommended addressing long standing inequities in County Committees by requiring diversity training related to African American, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander issues. 

County Committees are supposed to provide grassroots input to the Farm Service Agency but, according to the report, committees in many states “have not represented minority farmers and ranchers and the powers afforded to County Committees have continued to result in decisions that often cripple the economic livelihood of minority farmers and ranchers.”

The Equity commission recommended that these committees reflect the makeup of the community: if 10 percent of the county population consists of minority farmers and ranchers, then at a minimum 10 percent of the County Committee should be of voting minority farmers and ranchers of that community. 

In a letter obtained by CNN, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the recommendations “a subset of many bold actions that we will seek to implement.”

“USDA will institutionalize these strategies to become an organization that is trusted today and by future generations,” Vilsack wrote. “The Equity Commission’s recommendations, and other related efforts the Department is already undertaking, will make our programs benefit every working American, particularly those who have been left behind.”

Tags Black farmers farming USDA

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