Agriculture Department leaders didn’t officially receive a slate of interim recommendations from an Equity Commission convened last year until Tuesday, but the department says many of the suggestions are already in the works.
USDA says the 48-page document submitted to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack will inform the continued dialogue between the department and the commission as it develops a final report to be released later this year; that report – expected by the end of 2023 – is also expected to include recommendations from the commission’s Rural Community Economic Development Subcommittee.
“It’s not just about improving this department for particular groups of people,” Vilsack said Tuesday in an event at USDA’s Washington headquarters. “It’s about creating a model department.”
Jewel Bronaugh, USDA’s deputy secretary and the co-chair of the commission, said USDA has already moved forward with many of the commission’s recommendations because time is of the essence.
“Time is our biggest challenge, and that’s why Secretary Vilsack has pushed and he’s pushed and he’s pushed, and he’s kept reminding us that we don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “It is about this administration, because we don’t know who’s going to come in the next administration, so there’s some things we need to get across the finish line very quickly."
She said some of the commission’s recommendations will require cooperation with Capitol Hill through the farm bill or budgetary process, but in other cases, “we’ve got to start the institutionalization work. We have the structure for that, but it’s a mindset change” for the department’s more than 100,000 employees.
Bronaugh and Vilsack pointed to several aspects of the report that were outlined in USDA’s response as already in the works, including funding for land access for minority producers, relief for distressed borrowers and work to make owners of heirs property eligible for USDA programs, among a host of other changes.
The commission’s interim report largely followed the draft recommendations approved at a Feb. 2 meeting, including a series of suggestions regarding elections and operations of Farm Service Agency county committees.
The report, for example, recommends making minority advisers to current committees voting members, considering a minimum percentage of representation in a county and its corresponding committee, and other language aimed to make the panels more equitable. The committees had been pointed to as a longstanding source of discriminatory practices in the department.
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One recommendation approved at the meeting addressed the possibility of making the county executive director a GS-level employee subject to the authority of the FSA administrator. That recommendation didn’t make the final cut, though the interim report does say the CED and county committee staff “should be subject to oversight and evaluation by FSA with civil rights, equity, and demographic indicators included as metrics.”
Tuesday was also Bronaugh’s last day at USDA after announcing plans to step down from the position in January.
USDA announced Ertharin Cousin, a current member of the commission and a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, will become the commission’s new co-chair. Current co-chair Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers, plans to stay on board. Dewayne Goldmon, currently a senior adviser for racial justice and equity at USDA, will be added as an ex officio member of the board to keep a member of the department involved in the commission’s leadership.
Vilsack also said USDA will begin a process this week to allocate about $2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funding for USDA borrowers who have been victims of discrimination. USDA will also announce an opening for the administrator of the program, something Vilsack said could be filled by a person or entity interested in overseeing “the administration and operation of this effort to provide that financial assistance, to make decisions about the level of financial assistance that will be provided.”
He said the national effort will also include regional hubs that will “help people work through the application process to understand what’s available … and how best to apply for that financial assistance.”
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