September 26, 2023

Third-generation farmer Cary Junior has spent the past three years trying to figure out how to ensure that Black farmers can benefit from the programs and financial resources within the United States Department of Agriculture.

As a member of USDA’s minority farmer advisory committee, Junior set out to address the effectiveness of the existing programs and whether the agency improved on racial equity, and introduced ways to help build trust with farmers.

Instead of making progress, he, along with other committee members, found themselves at a standstill. When the group first met in 2020, they inherited a workload from previous committee members and years of built-up frustrations with the agency. At the same time, the committee barely got a chance to meet in-person due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re still trying to figure things out because we’ve been delayed for the three years, not really getting anything done,” said Junior, founder and manager for SouthEast Michigan Producers Association (SEMPA).  

Nearly 15 years after the inception of the Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers, some Black farmers question whether their voices are being heard, since the agency has only partially or fully implemented about 4% of the committee’s recommendations. 

The committee submitted a total of 135 recommendations over its lifetime of existence, but only six recommendations from 2012 have been fully or partially implemented, according to data from a FOIA request submitted by Capital B. 

Some of the fully implemented suggestions include requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to provide a comprehensive annual report to Congress and the public on the scope and effectiveness of the section 2501 program and its outreach services, and providing multiyear funding to the most effective grantees of the program to allow them to plan and develop more effective programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The 2501 program — created in the 1990 Farm Bill — awards grants to community-based and nonprofit organizations, institutions of higher education, and tribal entities to ensure underserved farmers and ranchers get access to USDA programs.

“The agency implementation [of recommendations] may be infrequent because advisory committees only advise and recommend,” the statement in the FOIA request said. “Implementation of recommendations is discretionary.”

This year marks the first time farmers such as Junior say they’ve felt a renewed sense of energy because they’ve been able to meet consistently, hear from USDA officials across the agency, and build rapport among the advisory members. 

But that optimism may be short-lived.

“The other issue is we’re in the middle of appointment season,” Junior said. “We’re at least hoping that they’re gonna allow some continuity so we can move forward.” 

As the USDA is looking to usher in a new advisory committee in August, Junior and the others fear their work will be disrupted again because of the new appointment cycle. While members can serve up to two years, individuals can be reappointed to serve more terms. They also wonder whether their suggestions will be considered by the Secretary of Agriculture because of the overlap with a recently formed equity commission with similar goals.

Dewayne Goldmon, senior advisor for racial justice and equity to the Secretary of Agriculture, said he understands the concerns of advisory members, but the inability to meet and inactivity caused the committee to miss out on a chance to do “meaningful work.” 

While there are questions around the need for a committee and commission, Goldmon said the work of both should complement each other. The equity commission, which is funded by Congress, builds on the work of other committees, including the advisory committee, to take recommendations from suggestions to implementation, he said. 

“There’s a definite role that they both play, and we need to have them both in place as we go forward. The Advisory Committee for Minority Farmers, as you know, has been around going on 15 years now,” Goldmon said. “When you look at some of the disparities that exist, I think it’s going to be important to at least have that external piece to continue to evaluate how the department is doing from an equity standpoint.”

Access to USDA programs still limited

At the end of President George W. Bush’s tenure, his administration established the first minority farmers advisory committee in an effort to improve access to USDA programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, which include Black farmers. Once President Barack Obama got elected into office, the committee met for the first time, providing recommendations, and even getting some of the proposals approved. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, leadership refused to allow the members to meet in an effort, members say, to “disband the committee.” 

Created from the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the Farm Bill, the advisory committee’s mission is to produce recommendations that eliminate or improve policies to increase participation of minority groups in its 2501 program and agency operations. The members of the committee, which are farmers and education, civil rights, or nonprofit professionals, are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. 

But, some members feel they haven’t served full terms because they rarely got a chance to meet. Since 2013, the committee met only about nine times, agency reports show, despite the committee’s charter requiring up to four meetings a year. More than half of the meetings occurred from 2020 to 2023. 

Instead of terminating the committee, which happens if the charter isn’t approved every two years, the department — under the supervision of Sonny Perdue, secretary of agriculture under the Trump administration — stopped them from meeting altogether, said Harvey Reed, former chairperson and founder/CEO of the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives. Reed and other members said they feel the Trump administration did not care about equity for Black farmers.

“When you’re going through the process and when you’re dealing with career people and everybody’s sensitive about their position, they don’t want to look bad or what have you, but it’s not our job to make anybody look bad. Our job is to do what we’re supposed to do according to our charter,” Reed said, before resigning as chairperson in July. “We find things that need to be addressed that nobody has addressed.”

Goldmon, who also served on the advisory committee for three terms, said one of the reasons that some recommendations haven’t gotten passed is because there’s not a level of accountability attached to them. 

“In some cases, there may be recommendations that have budgetary impacts. And in other cases, there may be some that require legislative changes in order to be implemented,” Goldmon said. “I think we could have done a better job in defining what would actually be required to implement those recommendations and possibly have some follow up with making sure those things get considered.

Archie Hart, director of the office for small farm policy at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, served on the committee from 2011 to 2013 — the only period recommendations were approved. Hart says the reason they were able to get recommendations passed was because the USDA had Black leadership — such as Pearlie Reed, former USDA assistant secretary of agriculture, and Lloyd Wright, former adviser to the USDA secretary — working aggressively on their behalf.

“I don’t think we’ve had a person at that level that would not be afraid or had the wherewithal to really implement stuff,” Hart told Capital B. “I think that might have been the difference is that we had somebody at USDA who could take what we got and take it forward.”

But, Harvey Reed said he thinks some people feel the committee is going to “disrupt everything” because the goal is to level the playing field for people of color, and some people may be fighting against it.

In spite of the years of disorganization, one of the advantages of being a member is learning about the existing USDA programs and resources to share with Black farmers in their network, Junior said. While agency officials have overlooked them in the past, he said, he thinks they’re going to be more receptive in the future.

“We’re having meetings with each of the agencies within each of the departments and asking questions. That’s our job. We know one or two of them for sure have a bad reputation with Black farmers,” Junior said. “We’re just trying to make sure that, again, that everybody gets the same opportunity everywhere.”

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