USDA’s Equity Commission has taken a major step toward issuing a set of recommendations it says would address racial discrimination and make the implementation of USDA programs equitable across the department.

The process has been painstaking, as USDA staff have attempted to answer questions from commission members about the legislative leeway USDA has to make changes and about what USDA is currently doing to address discriminatory practices.

The result so far is more than two dozen recommendations addressing a variety of issues, including the operation of Farm Service Agency county committees, the process for handling civil rights complaints at the department, and, in general, the operations of USDA as a whole.

The recommendations, adopted at a meeting last week, will be included in an interim report to be presented to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. But changes can still be made as the interim report is reviewed by the department in consultation with the commission.

Perhaps the most controversial subject the commission has tackled is that of county committees, which the commission agreed in September should be looked at for possible elimination. After a closer look at the legal underpinning of the committees, the commission came back at last week’s meeting with language addressing representation, transparency and accountability.

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

Matteson is on a commission subcommittee that presented recommendations, but he could not vote on them.

P.J. Haynie, chairman of the National Black Growers Council — and also a subcommittee member — was probably the most forceful in arguing for reform of the county committee structure. In an interview after last week's meeting, he told Agri-Pulse he agreed with the commission's recommendations to make the committees more equitable and to increase transparency and accountability.

Those recommendations include considering making the county executive director (CED) a federal employee under the oversight of the state executive director. Currently, CEDs are hired by the county committees.

Bronaugh_Haynie.jpgUSDA Deputy Secretary and Equity Commission co-chair Jewel Bronaugh (left) and Arkansas farmer and Equity Commission member P.J. Haynie

“If you have a rogue CED out there who is blatantly discriminating or acting against the underserved farm community, that person is protected by the county committee,” said Haynie. “And a lot of times the good ol’ boys will hire who they want to put in place to do the work they want done.”

Haynie noted that in 1920, Black farmers owned 16 million acres of land, a figure that has since fallen to 2 million acres. “When you quantify the average land value of $4,500 per acre, for 14 million acres that has changed hands, that’s over $60 billion of wealth that has been removed from the Black agricultural community that will never come back.”

Other recommendations include expanding voting rights for minority members of committees and considering a minimum percentage of minority representation based on the county’s demographics. The commission also said if their recommendations fall short of goals to increase county committee diversity, a study should be conducted.

Commission member Ron Rainey, an economics professor and assistant vice president for the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Arkansas, said the commission’s focus was on “oversight and accountability” of the committees. “Not to say that they're not accountable today, but just trying to get the transparency of that accountability. Because there are numerous complaints about the level of service that marginalized farmers and ranchers” receive through the committees.

Another area addressed by the commission is the process of adjudicating civil rights complaints, which has been criticized for taking too long and not delivering relief to minority farmers.

A recommendation to give farmers the option to file discrimination complaints using the National Appeals Division instead of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights was not advanced as originally worded.

Commission member Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, said the recommendation she and fellow Ag Subcommittee member Sarah Vogel put forth would allow a complainant to decide if they want their case to be heard within NAD or if they want it to go to the civil rights office.

“We're not trying to take anything away from civil rights,” Stanger-McLaughlin said, adding she has “so much confidence in the leadership in that office right now.”

She and Vogel argued that complainants might receive faster service from NAD, but the current head of that office, Frank Wood, told the commission the day after the recommendation was discussed that he foresaw difficulties implementing it.

The investigative function that now takes place in the civil rights office, he said, is “nonexistent” in NAD and “we would have to ramp that up somehow,” he said.

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In addition, Jennifer Nicholson, deputy director of the Office of Hearings and Appeals, said allowing NAD to handle discrimination complaints “would take more than just a rewrite to our regulations. I think our statutory mandate does not support this” and current regulations “clearly exclude complaints of discrimination.”

Monica Rainge, deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, policy and stakeholder engagement, echoed Wood, saying that “NAD is not equipped to do investigations.” In addition, where the civil rights office allows 180 days for a discrimination complaint to be filed — and can extend a waiver if necessary — the timeline for NAD is much shorter.

“Once you get a letter saying you have an adverse claim, you get 30 days to file a NAD appeal,” Rainge said. “And if you don't, that appeal right is lost. So I think one of the consequences of trying to fast-track a process is that some people will lose their rights simply because they don't act fast enough.”

The commission ended up approving a recommendation that OASCR be funded at a level allowing it to process complaints in 180 days, and that USDA should examine “alternative program complaints models,” perhaps based on NAD’s process.

Penny Brown Reynolds, USDA's deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, management and operations, told the commission the office is involved in a top-to-bottom review to process complaints faster and better.

“We want to improve the process in such a way that it doesn't matter who's sitting in the White House,” she said, noting the office is “fully funded” at about $31.7 million, an increase of $12.5 million.

“Everybody is gathering right now in our agency and looking at every single process that we are doing, and seeing how can we make it better?” she said. “We need technology, so we're in the process of upgrading our technology.”

The future actions of the commission are yet to be determined; Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, the commission's co-chair, plans to leave her position soon. The date of the next commission meeting has not been set, but USDA said, “We look forward to (its) continued work … to advance equity and to build a USDA that is inclusive of underserved communities.” 

“I'm proud to be part of this historic change,” Haynie said. “And I'm hoping that the changes that we make will reverse the downward trend for African American farmers and landowners in the country.”

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