The USDA has a long history of discrimination against minority farmers.
The department’s discriminatory practices factored into 90 percent of Black farmers losing the 14 million acres of land they once owned in the 20th century. The USDA was even found to be distorting data to create the illusion of rising numbers of Black farmers under the Obama Administration.
As a result of its history of racial discrimination, the department has had to shell out major dollars in settlements, including $2.2 billion to Black farmers in the “Pigford” settlements of 1999, and in 2010, a $760-million settlement of the “Keepseagle” class action lawsuit on behalf of Native Americans in 2018. And farmers are still awaiting the $5 billion in debt relief that Congress approved in March 2021 for farmers of color as part of a COVID-19 aid package.
Today, Black farmers make up only 1.4 percent of all US farmers, down from 14 percent in the 1920s, according to the Census Bureau.
Now, the department is looking to solve its long legacy of equity problems.
In an effort to “address equity issues, including racial equity issues, within the Department and its programs,” the USDA has launched a new Equity Commission. The commission is funded by and required under the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law last March, and it was created to address the institutionalized racism within the USDA and its practices.
On Monday, the commission held its inaugural meeting, where its 15 members, who include farmers, lawyers, policy advisors and academics, convened virtually. The commission is co-chaired by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh. Other members include Mireya Loza, an associate professor in the Department of History and American Studies Program at Georgetown University; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; Hazell Reed, a retired vice chancellor for research and economic development from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluf; and Ertharin Cousin, founder and CEO of Food Systems for the Future and former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.
One major job of the Equity Commission is to issue an interim report and deliver actionable recommendations to the USDA within its first year, and produce a final report in 2023.
During Monday’s public meeting, Arturo Rodriguez, co-chair of the commission and former president of the United Farm Workers of America, said that one of his goals is to secure eligibility for federal programs for undocumented workers, who make up more than half of the farm workforce. Extending department resources to undocumented immigrants, non-English speakers and farmers without broadband access was also a topic for discussion in the first meeting.
“USDA acknowledges we have not done enough to provide all farmers and ranchers an equal chance of success and prosperity,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release, “and we are striving to change that.”