A committee established to help ensure that socially disadvantaged farmers have equal access to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs was convened for the first time during the Trump administration.
The USDA Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers held a public teleconference meeting July 29 for farmers and ranchers to recommend issues for the committee to investigate for future consideration by the Secretary of Agriculture.
The 15 members of the committee were appointed in mid-July, the first such appointments during the tenure of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, who has held the position since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017.
The teleconference was the committee’s first meeting since May 2016.
Nationally, the number of farms that are primarily operated by minority farmers is on the rise, but the number of farms with primarily Black producers is on the decline.
A similar trend follows in Indiana’s farming population, where minority farms are on the rise. According to the USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture, the number of farms with principally Hispanic, Black, Asian and American Indian farmers has grown between 2012 and 2017. During the same period, the number of farms with primarily white producers has fallen.
Committee chair Harvey Reed, of Gretna, Louisiana, said the committee would work to address issues for minority farmers that came up since the last meeting and during the teleconference.
“We need to know what we have to do, where we have to go and who we represent. And we do represent Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, the Blacks and all people of color in those regards,” said Reed. “We’re not going to leave any stone unturned. We are going to do the things we need to do.”
The committee members are from different parts of the U.S., including the Midwest. They range from farmers and ranchers to representatives from universities and from nonprofit, civil rights and professional organizations.
During the teleconference, callers shared their concerns about issues facing minority and beginning farmers.
Jennifer Silveri, director of field operations for Michigan Food & Farming Systems, an organization that helps underserved and beginning farmers access resource opportunities, said she wanted the committee to address how farmers she serves could access federal stimulus funds.
Silveri said the USDA has, in her experience, often overlooked small-scale farms in Michigan, which are often operated by historically underserved farmers.
“I’m hoping the committee has some discussion around the lack of accessibility of CARES funding that has come out through USDA. As it gets handed down through state offices through various programs, we’ve had a number of issues with accessibility for small-scale farms,” she said. “We also have concerns with the lack of technical assistance to help communities with poor connectivity get into those application processes, and we’re struggling to have information translated into Spanish so that it’s accessible by the 700 farmers in the state of Michigan that prefer to be able to ingest information bilingually.”
Another caller said the USDA needs to do a better job educating minority and veteran farmers seeking to start their own farms.
Ronald Friday spent 36 years in the U.S. Army before becoming a farmer in South Carolina. Friday told the committee that he believes the USDA should increase the help it gives to beginning farmers.
“We have walls preventing the government from engaging or assisting the farmer. I think that the government has to make sure that they have someone there that’s available to address those issues, not tell them ‘We can’t help you, you’ve got to go through the insurance company,’” Friday said. “So we’ve got to figure out how do we help the farmer when they run into these challenges, because these programs that the government’s set up are great, but if we’re not doing anything to help the minority through the process, he’s not going to go anywhere. He’s fighting a losing battle because he’s going up against large industries.”
Other callers worried that the committee would be afraid to address issues because of political concerns.
Former committee member Igalious “Ike” Mills, executive director of Texas AgriForestry Small Farmers and Ranchers organization, said committee members must be prepared to tackle racially charged issues.
“There are some trust issues that have to be addressed before we can begin to connect farmers with the USDA programs. You just have so many issues as it relates to having access or even getting any information. You can’t participate in a program if you don’t have the information. We can’t sugarcoat this, and we just have to tell it the way it is,” said Mills. “We have too many black landowners that have lost land, continue to lose land and certainly have issues regarding the USDA that have to be addressed.”
The committee will meet quarterly for the next year. Reed said it would post the USDA’s comments for committee recommendations on its website as soon as they become available.