Debate Sparks Over USDA’s Equity Initiatives at Raleigh Conf.

By: Jordan Meadows 

Staff Writer

During the 18th annual Minority Farmers & Land Owners Conference in Raleigh on Friday, June 14th, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Equity Commission panel convened.

The USDA side featured Charlie Rawls, former General Counsel of the Farm Credit Administration and USDA, Michelle Hudges, Co-Executive Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and Dwayne Goldman, Senior Advisor for Racial Equity to the Secretary of Agriculture. The panel presented their 2024 Final Report of Recommendations aimed at advancing equity within the USDA.

On the opposite side of the stage, Eloris Speight, Executive Director of the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center, offered critiques of the report assessed by her center, along with additional recommendations to augment the USDA’s initiatives.

Goldman highlighted the initial identification of 12,000 farmers in the American Rescue Plan of 2021, acknowledging a larger number existed but were hesitant to self-identify due to fear. He explained that nearly 20,000 farmers eventually expressed interest before the initiative was canceled due to lawsuits filed arguing that it discriminated against White farmers based on race. Goldman also discussed the $2.2 billion in the subsequent program, which attracted over 50,000 Black applicants.

One of Speight’s concerns centered on the program’s focus on “equality” rather than “equity.” She argued that equality entails everyone receiving the same resources, whereas equity involves prioritizing greater assistance for those who are most disadvantaged—in this instance, she specifically highlighted Black farmers.

“When the Inflation Reduction Act replaced the program in the American Rescue Plan, it shifted its focus: it said, “pay distressed farmers.” It provided $3.1 billion to do that,” Goldman said. “What the Inflation Reduction Act also did was actually increase the amount of money that could be used to provide financial assistance to folks who have suffered from discrimination in farmland programs.”

Another one of Speights’ arguments was that fewer Black farmers received financial assistance compared to their White counterparts. She did not clarify whether this statistic accounted for proportional representation among applicants, nor did she discuss the comparative financial burdens faced by each group.

However, she did critique the Pigford vs. Glickman settlement in 1999, highlighting its flaws, and noted that the recommendations similarly fell short in addressing the specific concerns of the Black farming and landowning community.

“The overriding concern is that, if this is the blueprint for equity, then that becomes very concerning for us… what we have decided is to do our own report,” Speights said.

“I think that could be very helpful,” Rawls said. “You can do things that a government-authorized commission can’t do because you can talk directly about things like race – we were constrained. That’s why maybe we’re a little wobbly on ‘is it socially disadvantaged or underserved’: we know what we’re all talking about but we can’t talk about it.”

Rawls continued by saying, “There’s a lot of folks in the country right now that want to talk– you know this report talks about being mindful of history, and they claim to be using historical analysis to be making decisions about the constitutionality of things. But they’re not really paying attention to the history… we need more people talking about history and what really has happened since Reconstruction.”

This statement provoked strong reactions from many attendees. Some exclaimed aloud, while others voiced their discontent with remarks like “This is a joke” and “This is insulting.”

Some attendees passionately criticized the USDA panel members, offering various suggestions. One questioned why funds were allocated to Ukraine instead of supporting Black farmers domestically. Another urged the USDA to improve the speed and efficiency of its policy implementation. A third attendee sought clarification on how the recommendations of the equity commission would financially support young aspiring farmers.

In any case, the session engaged the local farming community, research groups, governmental bodies, and concerned individuals in a lively exchange about the future of their shared interests, professions, and livelihoods in agriculture.

Unfortunately, no long term resolution was reached.

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