Vilsack says USDA must sharpen focus on civil rights

ALBANY, Ga. -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced he intends to place civil rights front and center at USDA, including calling on Congress to elevate the position of assistant secretary for administration to the undersecretary level and making sure civil rights get as much attention as other program areas headed by undersecretaries.

He also said USDA will hire a consulting firm to work with agency offices to make sure procedures are fair to minorities and women.

"Some folks refer to USDA as the last plantation, and it has a pretty poor history of taking care of people of color," said Vilsack, appearing Saturday before an annual Georgia farmers' conference sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Land Assistance Fund.

Both organizations help black farmers retain land and stay in business.

Vilsack said the current post of assistant secretary for civil rights will remain, but that official would work closely with the assistant secretary for administration. He also noted that outside consultants are needed to handle the farmers' claims that USDA employees are discriminating against them. When some farmers present said that such practices are still a problem with Farm Service Agency county office employees, Vilsack indicated the consultants would also work with county employees, who are paid by USDA but employed by local farmer committees. "You've got outright bias and discrimination. Also you've got good people who don't even know that they're discriminating," said Vilsack. "It's necessary to begin the process of re-educating people." A USDA spokesman said on Monday that decisions about how the consulting firm would work had not been made, but stressed action needs to be taken.

USDA's civil rights problems go back to the 1930s, when farm programs were set up. Black farmers argued that USDA's southern offices, staffed mostly by whites, denied them loans and farm program payments. In 1999, USDA settled a class-action suit, Pigford v. Glickman, that ordered payments to the plaintiffs. In the 2008 farm bill, Congress also included a provision, known as Pigford II, allowing black farmers who filed cases after a deadline set in 1999 to revive those cases. The bill included $100 million to settle those cases as well as a provision to allow additional appropriations if that money is used up. Native American, Hispanic and women farmers have also filed cases in federal court charging that USDA discriminated against them. Those cases are still pending.

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