USDA's Historic Actions to Assist Minority Farmers
By Ralph Paige
I have never seen a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) like this one. At the very beginning of the Obama administration, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, has developed initiatives to address the extensive and infamous civil rights problems at USDA.
Usually, lip service is paid to these problems shortly before the end of an administration and nothing is done as a result. But this time it looks to be a different and new era at the USDA. The "People's Department," which is what its creator President Abraham Lincoln called the Department of Agriculture, might actually become a department for the people. I applaud the secretary's efforts.
For more than 40 years and through nine administrations I've personally seen black farmers discriminated against by the USDA. I've seen discrimination complaints submitted to the USDA by black farmers shoved aside, thrown out or not processed.
There has been unbelievable discrimination including lack of credit opportunities or access to programs for black farmers and other minority farmers (which includes women) at the USDA's Farm Service Agencies across the country and in other USDA agencies. This has resulted in a tragic loss of land, which has gone from a peak 15 million acres of black owned land in 1910 to a little over 3 million acres today. Because of this, in 1999 black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA (known as the Pigford case); some claims in the case have yet to be resolved. Congress later offered in the 2008 Farm Bill, an opportunity for thousands of black farmers who were initially left out of the Pigford case to participate.
Vilsack's first official visit outside the District of Columbia as the Secretary of Agriculture was to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Now in our 41nd year, the Federation has worked diligently to help black farmers stay on the land across them South. Secretary Vilsack told our farmer membership in Albany, GA this February that he wanted to send a message to the country that without question, as Secretary, he will address the civil rights problems at USDA.
Now, Vilsack is letting the nation know what he plans to do. His plans include:
- Analyzing services at USDA agencies to develop recommendations for equitable access to these agencies - particularly the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and in Rural Development;
- Strengthening the Office of Civil Rights at USDA;
- Reviewing the thousands of civil rights complaints since 2000 to ensure they have been adequately addressed;
- Working with the Department of Justice he will finally resolve the remaining Pigford claims against the USDA; and
- Addressing the civil rights issues of other minority and socially disadvantaged farmers across the country and confront the discrimination of employee and promotion practices within the USDA itself.
Click here here for a PDF copy of the memo to USDA employees.
These are only some of the many initiatives the Secretary is taking to address the civil rights problems within USDA.
Under the Bush administration, the Federation requested a moratorium on foreclosures that black farmers were experiencing, which included even some successful claimants in the black farmer lawsuit. The Bush administration denied our request. In the meantime, foreclosures have gone forward even though a review of appropriate debt relief in the lawsuit is still being conducted.
Secretary Vilsack thankfully reversed the Bush position. He is directing the USDA agencies to suspend all foreclosures against farmers for approximately 90 days to, as he says, "allow time to review the loans for any problems associated with possible discriminatory conduct." Having a suspension of foreclosures for 90 days or more is the right action to take; in fact, it is the moral thing to do.
The history of civil rights at USDA has been appalling, but what we are witnessing today with the Obama administration's USDA is the most hopeful we have seen in the country's history. Throughout the USDA's long history from 1862 to 2009, we have never seen an Agriculture Secretary prioritize civil rights like this. We look forward to the implementation of Vilsack's plans and his next phase of finally ensuring equity at the USDA for all of our citizens.