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Vilsack weighs recommendations in civil rights report

A civil rights consulting firm hired to recommend ways to make sure everyone has equal access to USDA programs has suggested that Farm Service Agency state directors take over the supervision of county executive directors from county committees, and that crop insurance agents be given incentives to make more sales to minority and female farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appears likely to reject that advice.

Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group, an independent consulting firm, interviewed 1,752 USDA and county employees and concluded that the vast majority of them did not acknowledge discrimination as a problem, even though complaints and law suits have been filed for years.

“The very fact that so many USDA employees did not recognize the real problems of inequitable program delivery is a very serious concern, but may explain, in part, why previous efforts to address USDA discrimination problems have been less than fully successful,” the report said.

Vilsack, who released the report today, took a more positive position on that conclusion, saying that the study “confirms what we thought we knew — this is not a situation where people are purposefully and thoughtfully discriminating. The issue is people outside don’t feel comfortable walking into those offices. There has to be a strong effort to break that barrier down.”

The administration has already incorporated many of the report’s recommendations into its civil rights action plan, he said, while others would require regulatory or statutory action.

But when asked by The Hagstrom Report about the recommendation to take supervision of county offices away from county committees, Vilsack said “we have to give a bit of a pause” to that.

“We want people at the local level to buy into" the administration’s attempt to make sure that all people who come into USDA offices get equal treatment, he said, adding that he hopes to see “more comfort in the countryside” on these issues. Some county committees now have ex-officio appointed minority members, and it may be appropriate to make them voting members of the committees, he suggested.

The Franklin Roosevelt administration established the system of elected county committees in the 1930s when it set up the first modern farm programs and needed an entity that could certify who was a farmer and who was not when individuals applied for farm subsidies.

Black, Hispanic, Native American and female farmers have long complained that they have been treated differently from white men when they have applied for farm benefits in the local offices. The state executive directors to whom the consultants recommended transferring power are political appointees of the presidential administration in power.

The USDA’s rural development division, which handles rural housing, utility, business loan and utility programs, is doing the best job of reaching minorities, Vilsack noted the report said, but other divisions including FSA need to do more.

The report also said that USDA does not keep records on whether minorities are buying crop insurance, and recommended that the agency demand agents and companies keep and provide that information.

Agents might need “incentives” to market to minority and female farmers, the report said. This would be difficult to propose in the current budget climate, Vilsack said, since “incentives usually mean money.” If more minority and female farmers participate in farm programs and get loans, he said, they may be required to take out crop insurance.

The report also said that the new Conservation Stewardship Program should not be funded at the expense of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, because more minorities participate in the EQIP program. Vilsack said he is not sure that conclusion is accurate.

So much of agriculture production is now in the hands of large farmers who are mostly white males that the issue of minority and female farmers’ treatment in county offices might not seem as important as years ago, when many of the grievances addressed in civil rights law suits were filed. But Vilsack noted that the number of small farm operations have increased in recent years, and that mid-sized farm operations include many black, Hispanic and female farmers.

Serving on the committee which oversaw the report:
  • Weldom Latham of the Jackson Lewis firm
  • Bob Nash, who served as undersecretary for rural and community development in the Clinton Administration and also served as an assistant to Clinton in the White House
  • Alvin Brown, a former USDA deputy administrator for community development
  • Larry Mitchell, a former USDA FSA deputy administrator for farm programs, former vice president of the National Farmers Union and farm lobbyist

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has worked on the issue of civil rights at USDA for many years, said today that the release of the report should encourage Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to hold a hearing on civil rights at USDA.

“Over the years, the Department of Agriculture lost a great deal of credibility on civil rights issues,” Grassley said. “People are tired of talk and are looking for action from the department. After years of this inaction, I appreciate the focus on civil rights issues at the department. I look forward to seeing the progress they make on these recommendations, and I hope Chairwoman Stabenow can hold a hearing on minority issues and the department’s Office of Civil Rights in the near future.”