Sunday, October 18, 2009

Minority Farmers

I recently participated in the Farmers Legal Action Group, Inc. (FLAG) Board meeting. I was elected to serve on the FLAG Board last year.

For those new to FLAG, its work is described as follows:
Farmers' Legal Action Group, Inc. (FLAG) is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services to family farmers and their rural communities in order to help keep family farmers on the land.
The meeting was held in Albany, Georgia, and while it involved a review of the wide range of family farm support projects undertaken by FLAG this year, its focus on providing support to minority farmers was highlighted.

FLAG's newest board members reflect that support:
  • Phil Baird, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota) and the Vice President of Academic, Career & Technical Education at the United Tribes Technical College.

Former board member, Shirley Sherrod and retiring board member Betty Bailey, former executive director of RAFI were honored at a special dinner. Shirley has long been a champion of black farmers through her work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative. She left the board because of her new position as Georgia's head of the USDA Rural Development office. Shirley's husband, civil rights leader Charles Sherrod joined us and provided a moving story of the history of the civil rights struggle in Albany. Pictured to the left are Charles and Shirley with FLAG Executive Director, Susan Stokes.

According to the USDA analysis of the 2007 Census released early in 2009, there is "growing diversity" in American agriculture. The actual numbers, however, reveal a long way to go.

Only 2.5% of principal farm operators are Hispanic; 1.6% of are American Indian; 1.4% are Black; and .5% are Asian. That puts white principal operators at 94% of American farmers. The USDA offers a map with a state-by-state breakdown of the racial make up of farmers.

Discrimination is an issue that continues to haunt the USDA. After years with a non-existent or grossly deficient mechanism for even investigating discrimination complaints, the USDA is now trying to clean up the mess. The Pigford discrimination case on behalf of African American farmers settled in 1999, yet implementation of the settlement is only now winding down. So far, the USDA has paid out over $1 billion to African American farmers who chose to settle their claims through the streamlined, "Track A" process agreed upon in the consent decree. Congress passed so-called "Pigford II" provisions as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, allowing additional plaintiffs who missed critical Pigford deadlines to also sue.

Last week, NPR did a story on the Garcia case on behalf of Hispanic farmers, Hispanic Farmers Fight to Sue USDA.

Also in progress, but not mentioned in the NPR story is the Keepseagle case filed on behalf of American Indian farmers.

Early in his tenure as Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack sent a memo to all USDA employees that included the following:
As you know, civil rights is one of my top priorities. In the Departmental complaint system alone, more than 14,000 complaints have been filed since the year 2000. Approximately 3,000 of these complaints remain to be processed, and questions continue to be raised about USDA’s handling of complaints. I have said many times that I intend to take definitive action to improve USDA’s record on civil rights and to move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider. … To be successful, all USDA employees must be committed to making USDA a model in the Federal Government for respecting the civil rights of its employees and constituents. As Secretary, I will accept nothing less.

Appreciation is expressed to Rita Capes from FLAG for the photographs displayed here.


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