Department of Agriculture works to remedy its history of discrimination and aid Black farmers

EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of a 15-member equity commission tell theGrio the USDA's aim is to redress the wrongs of the past.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responding to President Joe Biden’s executive order to form a 15-member independent equity commission intended to fix discrimination in its ranks, particularly aimed at Black farmers and rural landowners.  

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Black farmer
(Photo: Getty Images)

The hope for this commission rests on several factors that include financial resources that have been provided through the American Rescue Plan, as well as a variety of subcommittees to address a broader array of equity issues at USDA. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack throws his full support behind this effort, as he vowed when he took the post to lead the USDA for the second time, to establish an equity commission. The newly-formed body will take a year to come back with some suggestions after it studies the current state of play on matters of race in the department.

Shirley Sherrod, the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, has worked with Black farmers for over 50 years and comes from an agrarian family herself and contends Black farmers are in dire need of help as there are a multiplicity of negatives facing this dwindling group of minority farmers.  

Sherrod, who previously worked for USDA, said opportunities are needed for farmers to be able to sell their local produce at local markets and these minority and disadvantaged farmers need to also be equipped with the understanding of genetically-modified foods that are keeping the supply chain going in the midst of disruptions due to COVID-19.  

Shirley Sherrod
Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA official, speaks during a news conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, at the Department of Agriculture on August 24, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In the early 20th century, there were a plethora of Black farmers in the United States. Sherrod estimated to theGrio that there “almost a million Black farmers somewhere around 1910 or so,” who she said, “owned about 15 million acres of farmland.”

In 2022, Sherrod said she can’t give a good estimate but that the numbers are dismal. “It’s hard for me to say how many because now we have the concept of urban farmers as well as rural farmers. So I don’t have a true figure of the number,” said Sherrod.

Many Black farmers were faced with shutting down their businesses because of lack of capital and many were denied loans from the Department of Agriculture because of alleged discrimination.

For decades, the department has been plagued with claims of racism and lawsuits. A source close to this issue in the U.S. Department of Agriculture told theGrio, “We believe that this commission will identify barriers that may exist to our programs and to equitable access to our programs.”

The source added, “USDA recommends a course of action to remove those barriers and also recommends how we might be able to expand assistance to historically underserved populations that could be serviced by USDA and recommend actions to ensure that our department continues to develop a culture that prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion and access to that culture.” 

Sherrod is a member of the commission along with NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who told theGrio that the USDA’s newly formed equity commission is “critical for Black farmers and economically distressed rural landowners. As we fight the impacts of climate change across the country, there must be a strategic and equitable approach to protecting multigenerational family farm operations.” 

Johnson added, “With the delay of Build Back Better, which would provide meaningful resources to farmers, we must commit ourselves to empowering our agribusiness community. I look forward to serving alongside those that seek to do just that.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson,
NAACP President Derrick Johnson addresses the Newsmaker Luncheon at the National Press Club August 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The USDA under the leadership of Secretary Vilsack is in the process of finding remedies to these issues that have made news headlines for decades, including discrimination lawsuits brought by Black farmers who were denied loans from the farm loan program. Many Black farmers died waiting for that settlement that was paid during the administration of President Barack Obama, though the settlement money was awarded during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Vilsack recently provided $75 million to 20 organizations that have trust among a variety of constituents that the USDA wants to do business with and provide services to. The department is also figuring out ways to invest about $2 million in more effective outreach to underserved populations. 

The USDA is also working to make the employee ranks more diverse in addition to its efforts to remedy its historical discriminatory practices.

A high-ranking source at USDA told theGrio that an equity lens will be used on programs that were enacted during the Biden-Harris administration. The source boasted, “it is now the most diverse senior executive teams in all of the federal government and certainly a historic level of diversity for the Department of Agriculture.”

A lawsuit filed on behalf of white farmers has stalled a $4 billion USDA program intended to provide debt relief for Black farmers. The Biden administration is currently defending the program in federal courts.

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