USDA’s Equity Commission unanimously approved nearly three dozen recommendations Thursday addressing a swath of issues, including the diversity of county committees, funding for minority-serving institutions, and the way USDA handles civil rights complaints.

The recommendations will be included in an interim report to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Regarding county committees, the commission agreed to recommend a series of measures designed to bolster minority representation, such as giving minority advisers voting rights and asking Vilsack to look at allowing representatives from community-based organizations and minority-serving agricultural institutions. 

The commission had previously supported the potential elimination of the committees, but the multi-pronged recommendation on county committees now focuses on various ways to strengthen the voice of minority farmers on the panels.

“We’re trying to improve their function and their representation,” said Gary Matteson, executive vice president of Young, Beginning, Small Farmer programs and Outreach at the Farm Credit Council. “For anybody who’s listening — there’s not a suggestion to eliminate the county committees.”

Matteson is on the commission’s agriculture subcommittee, which advanced the recommendation but whose members could not vote on the recommendations.

Other recommendations for the committees include giving minority advisers “access to the (Farm Service Agency) administrator “to bring in real time issues and concerns within the county,” and to increase outreach surrounding county committee elections.

The commission also recommended a 20% increase in funding over five years in cooperative agreements and competitive grants to minority-serving institutions. It also said the department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights should receive enough funding to process complaints in 180 days, and that USDA examine “alternative program complaints models.”

Don’t miss a beat! It’s easy to sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news! For the latest on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and around the country in agriculturejust click here.

The commission did not adopt a proposed recommendation designed to give the National Appeals Division a role in discrimination complaints. USDA officials told the group the change was not supported by law and could invite “forum shopping” by complainants. 

Some commission members also expressed concern that giving the appeals division more authority would undermine the mission of the civil rights office.

The final interim report should be publicly available in a few weeks, but changes may still be made, the USDA official coordinating the committee’s work said at the meeting Thursday, the third day of the gathering.

Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, co-chair of the commission, received a standing ovation when she left the meeting for a travel obligation Thursday. “I’m very proud to have joined you in the work you have done,” she said, calling the members of the commission and its subcommittees “an incredible group of passionate individuals.”

Bronaugh recently announced she is resigning from the department.

For more news, go to