The commission studying discrimination in the Agriculture Department wants USDA to consider eliminating the county committee system that has historically played a large role in the Farm Service Agency’s management of farm programs.
The Equity Commission voted Thursday to recommend in an interim report to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that USDA “conduct an analysis and study regarding the termination of the county committee system and design a more equitable alternative for ALL farmers."
The analysis “should include the current role of the county committees in creating disparities for minority farmers, both the historical role of the county committee system and the current displacement of minority farmers,” the recommendation says.
In addition, the commission is recommending that USDA:
- “Immediately implement a program to ensure that County Committee minority advisors have access to the FSA Administrator to bring in real time issues or concerns within the county and an annual report or accounting to the Administrator on how that committee is operating.
- “Appoint a minority VOTING member in areas of high proportion of minority farmers without representation.”
The interim report is not available yet, but the commission discussed recommendations to include in it over the past two days, and voted on them Thursday. Once the report is finalized by the commission and presented to Vilsack, it will be available on the commission's web page.
The Farm Service Agency's county committees are designed to provide local input on a variety of issues, including commodity and conservation programs, payment eligibility and disaster assistance. Committee members are elected by farmers in each county. FSA’s website says “producers serving on FSA county committees play a critical role in the day-to-day operations of the agency."
The alleged role of county committees in displacing minority, especially Black, farmers from their land from the time of the committees’ inception in the 1930s occupied a good portion of the commission’s discussions Wednesday and Thursday.
Dewayne Goldmon, Vilsack's racial equity adviser, said Wednesday there are some “myths and misconceptions” about the county committee system. They do not, for example, approve or deny loans to farmers, he said.
He also said that FSA is “taking steps” to make the committees more diverse, such as standing up 17 urban ag committees.
But P.J. Haynie, a Virginia farmer and chairman of the National Black Growers' Council, said “the county committee weighs heavy on the office and the county office personnel that makes those loans, and they are connected.” Haynie is a member of a commission subcommittee who spoke about the impact of the county committees.
Commission member Mireya Loza, a historian at Georgetown University, said, "We need a study that designs what the winding down and the end of this would be."
Commission member Ertharin Cousin, chair and CEO¸ Food Systems for the Future, said if the commission did not “put some teeth” behind its recommendations regarding county committees, “our report would be somewhat diminished.”
Currently, the ag secretary can appoint a minority member without voting rights to county committees and a socially disadvantaged member who is a voting member in areas where demographic data show that the county’s diversity warrants representation.
FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said appointing someone as a minority adviser “is about the most offensive thing that we do to somebody.”
“I can't see myself being in that position,” he said. “It would be awfully frustrating.”
Ducheneaux called county committees “a bone of contention” for him for years and said he supported a way for minority advisers to provide feedback to him directly.
He also said county committees charged with ensuring program compliance have too often worked to the detriment of producers. “We've got to find a way to get county committees enlisted in exercising that discretion to the benefit of producers,” he said.
The commission also agreed that USDA should have to conduct annual civil rights compliance reviews across all USDA agencies and made a host of other recommendations addressing nutrition, farmworkers, heirs property, research funding and USDA program operations, including handling of civil rights complaints.
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