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Three days before Christmas, Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden's pick for U.S. agriculture secretary, convened a videoconference with nine prominent civil rights activists and advocates for Black farmers.
Vilsack mostly listened.
What call participants wanted, first and foremost, was an acknowledgment that the Agriculture Department had marginalized and systematically discriminated against Black farmers for decades.
And some on the call expressed anger and frustration that Vilsack, in his first stint as agriculture secretary, during the Obama administration, did not fulfill his promise to right those historical wrongs.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said in a text to the Washington Post that he had held calls with Black farmers in different states to hear their concerns.
'The calls were made out of respect for their concerns, to listen, and to learn,” he said. 'The calls were a start, and if confirmed, I will go to USDA with the understanding there is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to respond to the concerns and needs of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers.”
According to people on the call, it was a step toward healing.
'I left the meeting hopeful,” said Cornelius Blanding, who heads the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. 'There was acknowledgment that there were things he could have done or wished he had done during his eight years.”
The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday advanced Vilsack's nomination to the full Senate.
Biden has vowed that his Cabinet will be 'the most diverse in history,” but apart from his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his vice president, many Blacks remain frustrated that Biden has not selected Black candidates for more key positions and had hoped that the USDA for the first time would be headed by someone who looked like them.
After months of national debate about systemic racism and reparations for slavery and segregation, prompted by the police killings of George Floyd and others, civil rights groups had urged Biden to choose Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who is Black, to head the USDA - in part because of her leadership of the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, oversight and department operations and her focus on programs to alleviate hunger.
Fudge, instead, was tapped to be secretary of housing and urban development.
Black farm organizations and advocates say Vilsack squandered eight years of opportunity to address long-standing complaints of discrimination in access to USDA loans and other programs. His inaction, they say, exacerbated a catastrophic loss of land and livelihood for many Black farmers over the past century, widening the racial wealth gap.
Many civil rights activists resent Vilsack for demanding the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, the first Black director of rural development in Georgia, a decade ago.
Sherrod, who also was on the Dec. 22 call, was forced to resign after conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart published excerpts of a speech in which Sherrod appeared to endorse discriminating against a white farmer, drawing immediate rebukes from the NAACP, the White House and others.
When the full speech came to light, however, it showed Sherrod had been quoted out of context. Vilsack offered Sherrod a new position two days later, but she declined.
'He has to create a culture of racial and social justice across the agency to even begin to undo the harm that has occurred,” Sherrod said in an email to the Washington Post before the call. 'There are no easy fixes. He has to be holistic in his approach to setting things right.”
Sherrod, through a spokesman, offered no further comments on the videoconference meeting.
Past and present government officials see Vilsack, a former two-term Iowa governor, as a safe choice for agriculture secretary, offering seasoned leadership after a chaotic four years and a devastating pandemic that has exposed the vulnerabilities in the country's food system and rendered millions of Americans food-insecure.
But many Black farmers believe Vilsack failed them in his first stint as secretary by not increasing their access to land or capital, two crucial areas.
The amount of farmland under Black ownership has fallen by 85 percent over the past century, according to USDA census data, with people forced off their land by discriminatory government and business policies that made it harder to get loans, buy equipment or qualify for USDA financial assistance programs.
'Much of this land has been stolen by laws, as well as by social and market practices that were purposely designed to deny Blacks fair and equitable access to markets,” said Webster Davis, owner of Triple D Produce in Auxvasse, Mo., and secretary of the Missouri NAACP.
Vilsack started in 2009 with a memo to all USDA employees calling for 'a new era of civil rights” for the department. His performance did not live up to expectations, some civil rights leaders said.
During the videoconference, Blanding and others pushed for the Biden administration to support the Justice for Black Farmers Act, introduced in November by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
It would fund the distribution of free land to Black farmers and establish an independent civil rights oversight board at the USDA.
Biden made a campaign promise to 'address long-standing inequities in agriculture,” and Vilsack discussed the Justice for Black Farmers Act during the videoconference, but the Biden team has yet to take a position on the bill.
The second priority for Blanding and others is to ensure diversity in staffing at the agency, which has 100,000 employees, 2,100 field offices and a $146 billion budget.
A Partnership for Public Service report shows the percentage of minority career senior executives at the USDA was below the government-wide average when Vilsack took charge.
By 2015 it had increased to 35.4 percent - 14.9 percentage points higher than the government-wide average - but the senior leadership remained largely white.
'It's important that the team around him - his staff and his advisers - is reflective of the farming community, especially the Black farming community,” Blanding said.
'In his first eight years he had the luxury of not knowing things, but he won't have that luxury this time.”
In remarks delivered in Wilmington, Del., upon being named as Biden's nominee, Vilsack, who has spent the past four years as chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, with an annual salary of $833,000, expressed pride in his record and promised an inclusive senior leadership team that would 'continue the work of rooting out inequities in the systems we govern and the programs we lead.”
Ramona Romero, general counsel at the USDA for several years under Vilsack, said he has been blamed unfairly for historical problems at the agency.
'The secretary inherited civil rights problems that were long-standing and entrenched,” said Romero, a Latina.
'Every day during my tenure, correcting those practices and the horrendous civil rights record was top of mind for him.”
Other supporters credit Vilsack for creating the USDA's Minority Farmers Advisory Committee in 2011, made up of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as well as not-for-profit organizations that work with these farmers; creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers; and expanding access to microloans and resources for farmers in underserved communities.
Many say Vilsack also increased transparency and accountability. During his tenure, farmers who sought a program or service from a USDA office were legally entitled to a receipt as proof of service or denial of service.
Romero said Vilsack, contrary to some claims, increased the number of people of color in senior ranks.
'I believe it is a mischaracterization that there wasn't diversity at the department,” she said.
'There were multiple people in the senior political staff who were African American and Latino - I was the third female and the first person of color as the general counsel in the department's 150-year history.”
Still, Vilsack remains under pressure to move decisively to address the USDA's legacy of discriminating against Black farmers by denying them loans and allowing discriminatory practices that resulted in the loss of land and generational wealth.
'Tom Vilsack knows the agency, so there is no excuse not to get the job done this time when it comes to protecting Black farmers and expanding their access to critical USDA programs,” Sherrod said.
She said the agency's focus needs to be on the expansion of access to capital for Black farmers, as well as 'a holistic response to restore what has been taken away from our community due to the systemic racism that has existed within USDA.”
Lloyd Wright, director of the USDA's Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton and Obama administrations, said Sherrod's treatment was indicative of Vilsack's mishandling of issues involving Black people.
'That was the pattern. Punishment was always more severe for Blacks. He had a low tolerance for dealing with Blacks,” Wright said. 'There has always been this idea that the USDA is the last plantation.”
Joe Leonard, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights under Vilsack, defended the secretary's record, saying he 'made it clear that USDA would have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination” and directed Leonard's office to lead a comprehensive program to improve the USDA's record on civil rights.
Pigford I and II
One of the central grievances against Vilsack remains his handling of the largest federal civil rights settlement in U.S. history, after a class-action lawsuit brought by Black farmers against the USDA.
For many American farmers, the USDA is a main credit source for land purchases and operating costs. Black farmers carry a higher share percent of debt for land than White farmers, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This debt has been a major contributor to foreclosures and the dramatic loss of land for farmers of color.
Known as Pigford I and II, the class-action lawsuits argued that between 1981 and 1996 the agency disproportionately denied or delayed loans and denied crop disaster payments to Black farmers and failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints.
Pigford I paid out $1 billion to 13,000 Black farmers, but many critics said the one-time payments of $50,000 were not enough to cover the much larger landownership debts accumulated by many Black farmers.
In addition, critics said, 70,000 Black farmers were wrongly disqualified or denied settlement money because of late applications.
As a part of Pigford II, the 2008 farm bill allocated an additional $100 million to settle the claims that were wrongly denied, an amount many said was insufficient to cover them all.
In 2010, Vilsack announced an additional $1.15 billion to settle claims, but that funding was contingent upon congressional approval and stalled in the Senate.
Many Black farmers spent more than a decade waiting for judgment and lost their farms in the interim.
'We need resources to undo historical inequities,” said Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and director of the science advocacy not-for-profit group's Food and Environment Program.
'When Black farmers want to recover millions of acres of land, there needs to be capital to pay farmers fair market value and make sure Black farmers have the capital they need.”
Salvador and other critics say Vilsack should have pushed harder for funding or tapped programs such as the USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation for the additional funds.
In the past two years, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has used the CCC to pay commodity farmers and ranchers $28 billion for losses due to President Donald Trump's trade wars. The second Coronavirus Food Assistance Program provided an additional $14 billion in direct support for farmers last year.
'We needed money to fund the debt forgiveness,” Wright said. 'We passed it twice in the House but never got it through the Senate. If you read Vilsack's website, it says they addressed 14,000 program complaints.
'We addressed them in that we put them in categories and established which settlement criteria we would have used to settle them, but since the bill didn't pass, we didn't give them a nickel or resolve them. I call that a paper shuffle.”
Wright says only 371 of the Black farmers compensated through Pigford received debt relief, even though most rated it as their top priority.
A former USDA employee in a senior role in the delivery of farm programs under Vilsack, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his current work prohibits him from speaking on the record, said that these criticisms reflect problems with the Pigford settlement, not Vilsack's record.
'Vilsack did not create Pigford or oversee a USDA that led to those issues,” he said. 'The criticisms are about whether farmers were made whole or got a fair shake.”
Corey Lea, a beef and pork rancher in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and head of the Cowtown Foundation advocacy group, sent an open letter to Biden objecting to Vilsack's appointment. Lea said little has changed since Pigford.
Lea has sued the USDA a number of times alleging discrimination, most recently in 2019. Lea lost that case but has appealed.
'The USDA has two separate administration processes, one for socially disadvantaged farmers and one for similarly situated white farmers,” Lea said.
'When a white farmer puts in a complaint, it is heard within 180 days. The Black farmer's complaint goes into a pile, and it never gets heard.”
Leonard countered that claim.
'That's not true,” he said. 'Under Secretary Vilsack, the USDA was equally committed to addressing complaints from farmers of all backgrounds. Of course, there is more work to be done to overcome historical disparities, and I'm confident Vilsack will prioritize that once he's back in office.”
According to Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, many Black farmers still are having their Social Security and disability checks garnished because they could not resolve their complaints or have their debts forgiven.
'We expected Vilsack to put in a process of accountability for those guilty of discriminating against Black farmers,” Lucas said.
'He ignored all the opportunities that were brought to him by farm groups, farm advocates and employee groups - he was so busy concentrating on Big Ag.”
Tracy McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which provides legal representation to Black farmers, said she knows of 17,000 Black farmers who have been indebted to the USDA for between five and 30 years.
'The class-action lawsuits went terribly wrong for Black farmers,” she said. 'It wasn't restorative - the majority of elder farmers have crushing debt to USDA.”
McCurty said Theodore Bates of Hill City, Kan., was the steward of his family's 200 acres, acquired through the Civil War-era Homestead Act of 1862, and expanded it to 950 acres.
After a crop disaster due to adverse weather, he filed a discrimination suit in 1984, claiming that several of his local banks and credit unions had refused to extend credit and had unfairly foreclosed on his property. He participated in Pigford and received no compensation.
He lost all 950 acres and still is in debt today for $200,000.
At a time when everyone is talking about racial justice, McCurty said, 'there can be no justice for Black farmers that doesn't include the Pigford farmers.” That justice must include debt forgiveness, access to land and a moratorium on foreclosures, she said.
Pointing to the billions of dollars that went out last year in assistance to largely white farmers for trade mitigation and pandemic relief, she said there needs to be the political will to repair the damage the agency has done to Black farmers.
'Where is the urgency?” she asked. 'Where is the bold leadership?”