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USDA draws on critics for equity accountability panels directed by Congress

Vilsack includes Shirley Sherrod on panel to review discrimination

Shirley Sherrod and then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, shown in 2010. Sherrod was dismissed over a doctored video only to be offered a new USDA job.  after her dismissal in the  Vilsack appointed Sherrod to a USDA equity panel Thursday.
Shirley Sherrod and then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, shown in 2010. Sherrod was dismissed over a doctored video only to be offered a new USDA job. after her dismissal in the Vilsack appointed Sherrod to a USDA equity panel Thursday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

The former president of a farm workers union will co-chair the Agriculture Department’s equity commission that includes the NAACP president, a dairy industry executive and a longtime advocate for Black farmers unfairly forced out of the department during the Obama administration.

The commission and a 13-member subcommittee on agriculture announced Thursday include people who have long called for changes at USDA to make it more hospitable for small and minority agricultural producers. The department said a subcommittee on the rural community and economic development will be announced in the future.

“This Commission will support our work to build a USDA that does not ignore or leave anyone behind …. as we dismantle barriers that historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The department announced a 15-member commission to be led by Arturo Rodríguez, who headed the  United Farm Workers for 25 years, and Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh to carry out a congressional directive to examine USDA policies and programs for racial equity.

“We are serious about our efforts to end discrimination across all areas of the Department,” Bronaugh said in a statement.

The commission will issue an interim report to Vilsack within 12 months and a final report in two years. The first commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 28.

Other commission members include Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP; Rick Smith, president and CEO of Dairy Farmers of America; and Shirley Miller Sherrod, executive director of Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education Inc.,  and a Black former USDA official forced out of the department in 2010 because of a heavily edited video that wrongly implied that she had discriminated against a white farmer before joining the Agriculture Department.

The fuller video showed that Sherrod had talked about putting aside personal bias to help the man. The White House and Vilsack, then the Agriculture secretary, apologized and offered Sherrod a new job. She turned it down.

In March 2021, Sherrod was among several witnesses at a House Agriculture Committee who said the USDA lacked accountability in addressing issues raised by several major discrimination cases, including a class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, by Black farmers.   

A pandemic relief bill (PL 117-2) signed into law in early March 2021 included a requirement for one or more equity panels to be created as part of a section appropriating $1 billion for several actions designed to address long-standing complaints about discrimination in USDA programs. The provision also directed the department to expand both access to the programs and technical assistance for minority farmers, ranchers and forest land owners.

A presidential executive order in January 2021 broadly committed the Biden administration and federal agencies to “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

Other equity commission members include Hazell Reed, executive director of the National Black Growers Council; Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund; Charles Rawls, former general counsel for the Farm Credit Administration and USDA; and Yvonne Lee, a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

In addition to the commission, the subcommittee on agriculture will focus on farm and credit programs at the department.

The subcommittee includes Russell Redding, agriculture secretary for Pennsylvania; Shari Rogge-Fidler, president and CEO of the Farm Foundation; Philip “PJ” Johnson Haynie III,  owner of Haynie Farms LLC;  Savonala “Savi” Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project; Michelle Hughes, equity and organizational change director for the National Young Farmers Coalition; Kari Jo Lawrence, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council; Janssen Hang, co-founder and executive director of Hmong America Farmers Association; and Erica Lomeli Corcoran, systemic change director for the United Farm Workers Foundation.    

“The appointment of experienced advocates like Arturo and Erica is encouraging,” said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero in a statement. “Arturo’s decades of tireless and pragmatic work with farm workers and their communities will be invaluable. His perspective will deepen the understanding of inequities faced by workers who have often been overlooked.”

Vilsack used his discretion to include three other subcommittee members: Sarah Vogel, a lawyer who has sued USDA over foreclosures and discrimination in lending to Native American farmers and ranchers; Gary Matteson, Farm Credit Council executive vice president of young, beginning, small farmer programs and outreach; and Jennie Stephens, CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation that works with South Carolina families to resolve title issues and hold onto their land.

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