USDA Equity Commission shares reform recommendations, effects on farm lending

A U.S. Department of Agriculture commission recently tasked with advancing racial equity in agency programs, presented the results of its work thus far on Feb. 28. The group presented its interim recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, with a final report due later this year. The report’s findings are based on the personal experiences and expertise of its members, their review of USDA’s programs and practices, and stakeholder input solicited through a series of public meetings.

In its 37-page report the commission made 32 recommendations for the department to root out discrimination, remove barriers to USDA’s programs and commit to addressing farmworkers’ needs. While some recommendations can be executed by the agency, others require involvement from Congress and the White House.

The commission recommended that the department reform how it interacts with farmers throughout its programs, such as through lending programs, opening access to cost-sharing services and USDA’s conservation efforts. It also recommended improvements to how USDA works with farmworkers and their families, from housing to increasing access to federal nutrition programs and urged the administration to establish an Interagency Farmworker Service Council to coordinate federal services.

Other recommendations included addressing USDA’s procurement programs, including using set aside programs to buy from “minority-, tribal- and women-owned small businesses.”

At the commission’s first public meeting in February last year, public testimony included stories of discrimination, including inequitable access to USDA loan programs and debt forgiveness, cost-sharing opportunities and disaster assistance—especially for Black farmers.