Ag Policy Blog

Vilsack: USDA Focus on Production Subsidies Has Led to Inequities

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
During an anti-hunger event, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed issues related to long-term inequities within USDA that the department will address with a new equity commission. The secretary said USDA's farm aid often focuses on production, which can create greater disparities. (Image from livestream event)

WASHINGTON, D.C., (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that USDA's focus on production-related farm subsidies has led to inequities with farmers of color.

Asked during an online presentation to the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference how an equity commission he has established will work, Vilsack used farm subsidies as an example of how long-term USDA policies can lead to inequities.

Vilsack noted that discussions of race and discrimination are often focused on acts of discrimination and acts of violence against people of color, but that “there is also the cumulative effect of things that have happened in the past.”

In the 1970s and '80s and even into the 1990s, a farmer of color would go into an office and might not get a loan or get it late, which would make the farmer late with planting and perhaps make it difficult or impossible to buy the latest technology, Vilsack said. “A gap grew between white and Black producers,” he added.

Meanwhile, he continued, USDA policymakers were focused on helping farmers in difficulty due to weather or market reasons and based that aid on the size of production.

“When you compensate on production, the person who is producing more benefits more. It means the gap widens,” he added.

“As we put the commission together, we have to think carefully about how we view the purpose of a program” and how it affects people at both ends of the production spectrum, Vilsack said.

The first two COVID-19 aid packages were based on a production formula, he noted. The top 10% of producers got 60% of the benefits while the bottom 10% of producers in size got .26% – a quarter of one percent – of the benefits, Vilsack said, adding that he “suspects” many of those producers in the bottom 10% were farmers of color.

“Do you think the gap will shrink or widen based on that circumstance?” Vilsack asked rhetorically. The Biden administration is reviewing the last COVID-19 aid package that the Trump administration started implementing before leaving office. “We are really challenged at this point. We must broaden the conversation to understand the cumulative effect over time. ... It is really hard work.”

Vilsack noted that President Biden and Vice President Harris have ordered federal agencies “on a fairly tight time line to do an assessment of how we spend money, who gets the benefit” and to develop policy guidance to create a more equal system. Vilsack said this analysis will also cover USDA's government contracts.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” he added.

Vilsack said that as an “older white guy,” he believes he should be “at the bottom of the list” in deciding how the equity commission should be structured.

Vilsack added that “the fact that I am an orphan probably impacts my feeling about adoption and supporting kids who may not know where they came from” and that the fact that his adoptive mother suffered from addiction also affects his views. He added that he has not had the experience of being socially disadvantaged.

He pointed out that Dewayne Goldmon, former executive director of the National Black Growers Council, who has been hired as his senior adviser for racial equity, will help lead the equity commission and that the Biden administration is putting together a diverse workforce.

The secretary made his comments following passage of the American Rescue Plan last week, a COVID-19 aid package that includes a provision that requires USDA to pay off Farm Service Agency loan debt for minority farmers. That provision is expected to cost about $4 billion.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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Steve Becker
4/10/2021 | 8:08 PM CDT
If you farm a small amount the loss related to things is smaller. I read this as letâ?™s treat the small operators the same in $ as the large even though their exposer to risk is smaller