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Vilsack offers new focus on diversity, equity at USDA

Jacqui Fatka Vilsack Federation of Southern Farmers.jpg
MORE DIVERSE USDA: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sees a different USDA than when he previously served at the agency, one that is committed to fairness and equity in reaching all farmers. On Monday, January 10, 2022, Vilsack held a roundtable discussion with leaders who partner with underserved farmers at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
USDA bridging partnerships with underserved farmers through renewed partnership with southern cooperative.

When he returned to serve in the cabinet position as secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack had something to prove -- to establish a new era of equity and diversity at an agency that courts have found fell short of providing fairness. Now, one year into his first year under the Biden administration he’s taken strong strides to create a different USDA, one that is “committed to fairness and equity,” Vilsack shared following a roundtable event at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives on Jan. 10.

During his nomination hearing, Vilsack faced questioning on how he would guide USDA in dealing with concerns over systemic racism. He’s been criticized for his lack of support of Black and minority farmers during his tenure during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017 and overseeing the second installment of a civil settlement with Black farmers.

When asked about his accomplishments in creating a more diverse USDA, he championed his senior leadership teams which reflects one of the most diverse senior leadership teams at USDA, he said. His deputy secretary, Jewel Bronaugh, is the first woman of color to serve in the role. His other confirmed undersecretaries include Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small, the granddaughter of a farmworker, and Jenny Lester Moffitt as Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. His leadership team reflects just one white male Robert Bonnie, a departure from the previous administration, with all the confirmed undersecretaries held by white males.

Vilsack also shared that USDA recently announced $75 million under funds from the American Rescue Plan to help USDA do a better job of connecting its Farm Service Agency programs to those who are underserved.

USDA is also conducting an analysis of gaps that exist both in terms of land access and market access for historically underserved producers. Vilsack said he believes this will help frame additional support and investment from funds allocated under AMR to target resources and help to those who’ve previously not received it.

Vilsack said USDA also plans to announce soon its equity commission. “We've been working on getting that set up, and we're looking forward to their work and giving us an outside look on how we might be able to do our job,” he said.

In addition, every program being offered by USDA now has a component focused on reaching the historically underserved community. “I think we’re trying to do a better job of incorporating all of that in our decision-making and making sure the resources are fairly distributed,” he said.

Supporting partnerships

While in Atlanta to speak to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Vilsack traveled just 15 minutes away to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund, which is the nation’s oldest and largest cooperative association of black farmers, landowners and cooperatives.

The agreement renews USDA’s commitment to working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to assist African American landowners and other underserved farmers, and ensure they have access to critical resources and information. The agreement focuses on the key role that underserved landowners play in forest management, food production, conservation, wood energy and climate mitigation.

Vilsack said the agreement shows the power of leverage and partnerships offering an opportunity for USDA to help build bridges between USDA and historically underserved communities so that they can hear from people and community organizations that they trust, such as the Federation, about working with the USDA.  

The partnership between USDA and the Federation aims to increase the number of minority landowners in the South and support them in sustainable forestry and agroforestry practices. Ken Arney, regional forester for the Forest Service’s southern region, explained that 87% of forest land in the region is private land. Arney said there are 2 million acres owned by minority landowners, compared to 60 million acres in the early 1900s.

Arney added a lot has been done since the partnership between USDA and the Federation in the early 2000s to help minority landowners develop a plan to truly realize the wealth of their property.

In order to accomplish objectives on their land, it is key for landowners to have a plan done by a professional forester resource manager, said Arney. “It’s important to work with landowners so they can stay on their land and remain productive.”

“Our goal is to make an intentional impact so that underserved landowners, especially African American landowners, have access to resources to manage the forest and other natural resources on their land to enhance family wealth and stabilize ownership through increasing income and land asset value,” said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

Natural Resources and Conservation Service Chief Terry Cosby added, “Through partnerships like this one, we are ensuring that historically underserved landowners and producers have the tools they need to successfully integrate conservation practices on their forest and agricultural lands.”

Focus on reaching underserved

USDA also announced an investment of up to $2 million in cooperative agreements this year for risk management education and training programs that support historically underserved producers, small-scale farmers and conservation practices. USDA’s Risk Management Agency is investing in organizations, such as nonprofit organizations, universities, and county cooperative extension offices, to develop training and education tools to help producers learn how to effectively manage long-term risks and challenges.

“Agriculture is an inherently risky business, and a strong farm safety net is key to sustaining and ensuring the success of American producers,” said RMA Administrator Marcia Bunger. “We’re committed to improving access to crop insurance, and our partnerships with organizations help us reach communities that have historically lacked access to training and resources. We want to make sure all producers know and understand how to manage risk and what options are available to them.”


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