Radical Changes Coming in USDA: FSA Administrator Talks About Marching Orders from Equity Commission Report
Radical Changes 031523
USDA's Equity Commission recently recommended sweeping changes across the entire government agency. One of its more than 30 recommendations includes transforming the Farm Service Agency into "a customer service organization that provides equitable treatment for all."
What kind of changes can we expect to see from the top to the county levels of the agency? Farm Service Agency Administrator and South Dakota producer Zach Ducheneaux served on the Equity Commission. It's unfortunate it took an equity commission report to help surface some of these issues, Ducheneaux says. However, Secretary Vilsack has been clear about acknowledging the inequities of past as a starting place to doing things better and different in the future.
Ducheneaux says a large part of their marching orders from the equity commission report involve better outreach to those who haven't been exposed to the opportunities the department offers.
"We'd already started to engage more meaningfully with our cooperators in those spaces, such as the Federation of Southern Farmers, Intertribal Agriculture Council, National Young Farmers Coalition, Farmer Veteran Coalition and various women farmers groups, to ensure they're getting the message at the same tempo as those who have a well-established relationship with the department," Ducheneaux says.
Despite talk in the country, he says USDA has no intention of eliminating the county committees and actually can't by statute. However, he says the committees have created victims of discrimination that mandate change.
"Ensuring there is equitable representation on the county committees is important not only for our historically underserved populations based on race, ethnicity and gender, but also our organic producers. Our specialty crop growers are growing a movement around urban ag," Ducheneaux says. "We've got to make sure we've got adequate representation if we're going to properly deliver our programs on behalf of the taxpayers."
One Washington insider says the report will give USDA more leverage, even in areas such as loan programs for underserved farmers, which recently drew legal action.
"I think USDA has a good bit of discretion in their loan programs after they were trounced down once by the court saying you can't just help black farmers who might have been hurt. You have to help everybody. I still think there's a whole lot of discretion," says Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations with Syngenta. "It could be that USDA can move forward on some of those without really having to have congressional approval."
Thatcher predicts some in Congress will also take recommendations from the report and offer changes in the farm bill, including a push by Rep. David Scott for additional funding for the 1890 colleges.
The Equity Commission will publish a final report, which will also include recommendations from its Rural Community Economic Development Subcommittee, by the end of 2023.