The USDA Equity Commission presents its interim report with 32 recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Washington CNN  — 

The US Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission on Tuesday presented more than 30 recommendations it hopes will extend opportunities to communities of color and help resolve longstanding discriminatory practices across the agency, according to a copy of the interim report first obtained by CNN.

In particular, the report calls for greater diversity across the agency, equitable access to USDA programs and accountability for the USDA to follow through on recommendations that are implemented.

Included in its 32 recommendations, the report:

  • Specifically lays out suggestions for diversifying county committees – powerful boards made up of elected local farmers who help with outreach and make determinations on Farm Service Agency programs – and funding for community organizations to help resolve heirs’ property issues, which involve family land that has been passed down that does not have a deed or will to show proof of ownership.
  • Pledges to provide greater recognition of the struggles experienced by farmworkers and calls for $5 billion to be provided to organizations that are concerned with their working conditions and wellbeing.
  • Outlines changes that should be made to the Census of Agriculture, including changing the definition of a farm and counting various types of farmers and ranchers in the next census, and improving language access. The commission also calls for legislation “to ensure accountability for equity” in the USDA and a re-evaluation of other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Recommends that the USDA transform the FSA “into a customer service organization that provides equitable treatment for all,” an effort that comes at a time the USDA is providing debt relief to farmers and in the past has been embroiled in discrimination complaints from farmers of color. The FSA loan processes should be examined and “use plain language and clearly describe eligibility criteria regarding loan programs and processes” to make it easier for new farmers and underserved communities to access them.
  • The definition of a “distressed borrower” should also include “those that have not yet entered delinquency yet are under financial stress that may prevent them from continuing farm operations.”

The interim report, authored by a 15-person commission and two subcommittees focused on agriculture and rural community economic development, seeks to remedy decades-long discrimination against farmers of color.

It’s been examining the USDA’s policies and programs for factors that have contributed to historic discrimination against farmers of color and identify disparities, inequity and discrimination across the department. The commission has held four public meetings in which it has heard input from farmers, ranchers and others relaying their concerns and suggested changes within the agency.

The report is one of several actions the USDA is taking to remedy discrimination throughout the agency, including providing debt relief to thousands of farmers whose operations are financially struggling.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the recommendations “a subset of many bold actions that we will seek to implement.”

“USDA will institutionalize these strategies to become an organization that is trusted today and by future generations,” Vilsack wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. “The Equity Commission’s recommendations, and other related efforts the Department is already undertaking, will make our programs benefit every working American, particularly those who have been left behind.”

The USDA said in a response to the loan recommendations that while there has been progress made on the Farm Service Agency loan program, including a loan assistance tool and a simplified direct loan application, the department will “continue to improve the access to and customer experience with” these programs.

County committees a primary focus

County committees, according to the USDA, impact farmers “through their decision-making and help shape the culture of a local FSA office,” where farmers often have their first face-to-face interactions with the USDA about loan programs and many farmers of color have said they experienced discriminatory treatment.

The commission is recommending diversity training for members, “a minimum percentage of representation required that is reflective of population for County Committee member vote,” specific outreach for tribal governments and citizens and establishing a USDA county committee liaison who will identify and implement diversity on the county committees.

Shirley Sherrod, a member of the Equity Commission who pushed for recommendations in the interim report about who can be selected to serve on the county committees and for the agriculture secretary to change the eligibility of county committees to include members from community organizations, told CNN it is important that the county committees reflect the communities they serve.

“You can make the policy there in DC, and when you see it implemented at the local level, it doesn’t look like the same thing that was passed. The local level is where a lot of the discrimination has happened,” Sherrod, who is a former USDA director of rural development in Georgia, told CNN.

In its response to the recommendations, the USDA said it is “working to recruit Committee members who reflect the full diversity of American agriculture, improve their trainings, and develop strategies to increase engagement with farmers who haven’t been represented in the past.” The department also said the Farm Service Agency is in “a pilot stage to implement Urban County Committees.”

‘Accountability at every level’

Legislation is needed to ensure that equity work remains a priority for USDA leadership going forward, the commission says, adding that the agency “should be measured and held accountable for their progress against impacting populations most affected by unfair or inequitable programs, services, or practices.”

The commission recommends that legislation should direct an agriculture secretary to collect data and conduct studies to “understand and document the extent to which underserved communities are not participating equitably in the programs and benefits” provided at local, state and federal levels of the USDA, county committees and nonprofit organizations. If an agriculture secretary finds ways to improve equity but doesn’t have the authority to do so, it should be reported to Congress, which should also be given an explanation for additional resources to improve equity. Revisions to “Equity,” “Equitable” and “Underserved Communities” definitions should also be considered.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, who is the co-chair of the Equity Commission and is leaving the agency on Tuesday, told CNN there should be accountability across the agency, especially local FSA offices.

“I have said and I will continue to say, it is totally unacceptable for anyone to go into a county office anywhere in this country and not receive the services, not receive equitable services. And it is important that there is accountability at every level so that customers can get fair and equitable treatment,” Bronaugh said.

Ertharin Cousin, a member of the Equity Commission and former US ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, will succeed Bronaugh as co-chair of the commission, along with Arturo Rodriguez. Dewayne Goldmon, a senior adviser for racial justice and equity at USDA, will join as an ex-officio member “to ensure the Commission maintains ample visibility into efforts underway at USDA,” the department said Tuesday.

A final report is expected later this year, but in the meantime, Bronaugh hopes the interim report will provide a blueprint for acting on the inequities she has tried to address during her time at USDA.

The department said it is committed to working with Congress and the White House “to identify opportunities to ensure programs are continuously audited, analyzed, and improved,” while pledging to “hold itself accountable to improve the availability and distribution of services and programs so that all customers and stakeholders have equitable access to USDA.”

Some farmers and ranchers, however, expressed skepticism to CNN and are concerned that the recommendations will end up tucked into the next farm bill without direct action from the USDA.

John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer who is founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, told CNN he doesn’t believe the interim report is going to help solve issues that have long been rampant throughout the agency and mentioned in previous reports from other groups.

“My concern is that while the grass is growing, the cows are starving. We have problems but no solutions,” Boyd Jr., who is also part of a group of farmers who have sued the US government over a repeal of a debt relief program for farmers of color, told CNN. “The things they have been talking about in these commissions, we have known this for over 40 years.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.