Senator Says She Welcomes Secretary’s Initial Efforts and Will Use Her Seat On Senate Agriculture Committee to Help Ensure Past Practices Are Stopped

WASHINGTON, D.C. [3/17/21]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) continued her push to ensure U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack upholds his commitment to ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ends the historic discriminatory practices that have not only robbed farmers of color across the country of needed services and assistance, but have also cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.25 billion in past restitution payments.

Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that when she questioned Sec. Vilsack at his confirmation hearing last month about past USDA discrimination, he signaled his strong intention to work both internally at the department and externally with the nation’s farmers of color to ensure all producers have full access to USDA services. 

 “As you and I discussed at your confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee, farmers across the country are facing unprecedented challenges. The global pandemic has only heightened the economic pain our farm families feel after years of low farm prices, trade disruptions, volatile markets, and historic levels of farm debt.” Sen. Smith wrote to Vilsack Wednesday. “I want to reiterate the concerns I expressed that day about the financial well-being of our nation’s farmers of color, who have historically been excluded from fully accessing the USDA’s resources and support. I also share your expressed views that we have a lot of work to do to make good on the promise to fix this historic wrong.”

Sen. Smith said she welcomed some of Sec. Vilsack’s and USDA’s initial efforts, including the nomination this week of Janie Simms Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Tribal Nation, to serve as USDA General Counsel, as well as the appointment in February of South Dakotan Zach Ducheneaux to head the Farm Services Agency (FSA). Ducheneaux formerly ran the Inter-Tribal Ag Council.

Beyond that, Sen. Smith said the recently-passed COVID-19 relief package included $4 billion for agriculture. She said she will work to target a portion of that funding to help beginning farmers and farmers of color navigate USDA forms and processes. 

You can access text of Sen. Smith’s letter to Sec. Vilsack below:

March 17, 2021

The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack                         

Secretary of Agriculture                                                        

U.S. Department of Agriculture                                        

1400 Independence Ave, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 205010

 

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

As you and I discussed at your confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee, farmers across the country are facing unprecedented challenges. The global pandemic has only heightened the economic pain our farm families feel after years of low farm prices, trade disruptions, volatile markets, and historic levels of farm debt. I want to reiterate the concerns I expressed that day about the financial well-being of our nation’s farmers of color, who have historically been excluded from fully accessing the USDA’s resources and support. I also share your expressed views that we have a lot of work to do to make good on the promise to fix this historic wrong. 

As you take over leadership of the department, I look forward to working with you and other USDA officials on the steps you outlined at the hearing to ensure farmers of color have access to all the programs and benefits that are afforded to all producers.  

As we address these historic problems, I want you to know that I will also use my seat on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee to ensure that inequities that have existed in farm lending programs for many decades are ended. As you know, having access to these important financial tools are not only key to the success of farmers of color, but of all producers.

I also want to renew my invitation for you to visit Minnesota to meet with the diverse group of producers who make up our important farm economy so that you can learn first-hand about their experiences and how the USDA can improve its customer service.

I was heartened by your remarks at the hearing on your plans to ensure that all USDA programs are equitable. It will require constant effort over the coming years and I plan to work alongside you to get that important work finished.

Sincerely,

Issues