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Biden’s Agriculture deputy choice may reflect minority critics

Biden signals he's listening to Black farmers

Vilsack,Biden's choice for Agriculture secretary, has faced criticism from several Black farmers groups.
Vilsack,Biden's choice for Agriculture secretary, has faced criticism from several Black farmers groups. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to fill the deputy secretary post at the Agriculture Department underscores the scarcity of Blacks and other minorities in high-profile positions in agriculture.

Jewel H. Bronaugh, Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, would become the first woman of color to serve as the USDA deputy secretary if confirmed. Bronaugh is one of two African American members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which represents top officials at state and U.S. territorial departments.

The announcement of the choice came on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a possible acknowledgement by the Biden team that it is listening to Black farmers’ concerns. Biden’s choice of Tom Vilsack to become the next secretary has faced criticism from several Black farm groups. The paucity of people of color in top Agriculture jobs is reflected in the general numbers for farmers. The USDA estimates 1.3 percent of U.S. farmers are Black.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a group that focuses on rural economic development, greater access for minority farmers to USDA programs and helping Black farmers keep their land, noted the holiday on which the Bronaugh selection was disclosed.

The organization has raised concerns about Vilsack’s nomination but welcomed the possibility of Bronaugh at a top spot in the Agriculture Department.

“We look forward to working with and supporting @VaAgComm at the People’s Department as we continue to build equity across this nation and our food system,” the organization tweeted Monday.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, more openly questioned the likelihood Bronaugh will address issues of importance to his members. He said Bronaugh should use her post as deputy secretary to further racial equity in agriculture.

“We hope she will use her knowledge of the department to level the playing field for NBFA members as well as other minority and small scale farmers and to end the culture of discrimination at the USDA,” Boyd said.

Vilsack stirred anger with his hasty firing in 2010 of Shirley Sherrod, Georgia state director for rural development, based on video excerpts of a speech she made. The heavily edited version by conservative Andrew Breitbart made it sound as though Sherrod, who is Black, had turned away aid to a farmer because he was white. The fuller video showed that Sherrod had talked about putting aside personal bias to help the man.

The White House and Vilsack apologized and Sherrod was offered a new job, which she turned down.

Bronaugh would bring a career in various areas of agriculture to the job. She is a former Virginia state executive director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, dean of agriculture at Virginia State University, an associate administrator for extension programs and an extension specialist for 4-H, a network of youth development groups that the USDA administers.


Her background and work got her an endorsement from Virginia Farm Bureau Federation President Wayne F. Pryor.

“She has done much to promote agriculture and address the many issues facing farm families and rural Virginia. Dr. Bronaugh will carry on this work in her new leadership role in Washington, D.C., and we support her swift confirmation,” Pryor said in a statement.

Biden has faced criticism not only from several Black farm groups, but also advocates for small farmers, and the NAACP for choosing Vilsack to lead the Agriculture Department. They had argued for the nomination of Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, as a precedent-breaking pick to head the department. Fudge, who is African American, was instead chosen to become Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The critics see Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama, as a supporter of the status quo who is unlikely to fight agribusiness consolidation that can price out farmers or to aggressively battle racial discrimination that denies Black landowners access to USDA farm programs.

Boyd, a fourth generation Virginia farmer, was a leader in the Pigford vs. Glickman lawsuit that alleged USDA officials in county offices had denied African American farmers timely loans, debt restructuring and other services from 1981 to 1997 in a pattern of racial discrimination The federal government ended the case in 1999 with a $1 billion settlement that provided $50,000 per farmer and debt payments to about 16,000 people.

Boyd was front and center in what became known as Pigford II, an effort by farmers who had missed the deadline for filing claims set in the original case to receive payments. Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder negotiated an agreement for $1.25 billion in February 2010.

The 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246) provided $100 million of the settlement, but Congress did not approve the remaining balance until November 2010. The settlement was finalized by a federal judge in 2011.

“While Dr. Bronaugh did not make the fate of Black farmers a priority during her time as the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator for the Commonwealth of Virginia or as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Agriculture Commissioner, her appointment reflects an historic moment in the history of the USDA,” Boyd said in a statement.

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew lauded Bronaugh’s career and said he hopes she will influence the USDA’s outlook on equity.

“We have a long ways to go when it comes to racial and gender equity in agriculture; with her understanding of the barriers that exist for underrepresented groups, we are optimistic that we can take several leaps forwards in the next four year,” Larew said in a statement Tuesday.

Just how much of a role Bronaugh will have in shaping policies is something she and Vilsack will have to work out, said Kathleen Merrigan, who was USDA deputy secretary from 2009 to 2013. Vilsack gave her responsibility for advancing local and regional agriculture issues.

The deputy secretary is the chief operating officer responsible for strategic planning for a department that operates 29 agencies and offices and employs about 100,000 people who are largely working in locations beyond the Beltway. The department’s average total annual budget of discretionary and mandatory money is $150 billion.

“The deputy secretary is responsible for flagging for the secretary important policy issues. As far as carving out an issue area that is something that the deputy secretary and the secretary will have to work out,” Merrigan said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Merrigan, now executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, said there will be pressure on USDA to address its “dismal history on issues of race” given Biden’s emphasis on racial equity during his campaign.

There’s a lot of opportunity for USDA to perform, to do what is right,” Merrigan said.

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