NSAC's Blog

USDA Office of Outreach and Advocacy Convenes Cooperators Conference

October 13, 2010

Lydia Villanueva, a member of NSAC’s Organizational Council and co-leader of NSAC’s Diversity Committee, brought a delegation of four farmers (three Latina and one Latino) to the USDA’s 2010 Cooperators Conference, held September 26-28 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The event, which brought together an audience of 600 socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers and representatives of community-based organizations, was sponsored by the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO).

OAO was created in the 2008 Farm Bill for the purpose of providing outreach and technical assistance for the benefit of small, minority, limited resource, and new and beginning farmers and ranchers.  The Diversity Initiative and NSAC weighed in with USDA over a year ago with recommendations for the establishment of OAO.  Read these recommendations here.

Pearlie Reed, USDA Assistant Secretary for Administration, opened the event by stating that the Department wants to hear from the stakeholder communities and ensure that they are aware of relevant USDA programs and services.  He also mentioned the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s goal of helping to create 100,000 new farms.

Not surprisingly, there was an outpouring of frustration at the Town Hall meeting that followed.  The first to speak was a black farmer who traveled to the meeting hoping to see Secretary Vilsack, and was disappointed that he was not there.  He asked when the settlement of the lawsuit concerning discrimination against black farmers would be resolved and expressed his frustration over the delay.  NSAC has advocated for funding for the settlement of the lawsuit, known as Pigford vs. Vilsack; to read our most recent blog post about the settlement, click here.

“You could tell that lot of folks in the room were feeling the same way.  The panelists provided no response to the farmer, but the crowd applauded him in support,” recalls Villanueva.

Some speakers actually objected to the USDA’s goal of helping to create 100,000 new farms.  “When we heard that, some of the response was, ‘You have to take care of the ones that are here before we start creating more,’” reports Villanueva.  Other speakers felt as though they were not receiving fair treatment because they are Native Americans, Latinos, Hmong, or African Americans.  Still others expressed concern that groups including the elderly and veterans were being overlooked. “Folks were not happy, mind you this was 10:00 am on day one of the conference.”

USDA officials encouraged minority and beginning farmers and ranchers to serve on USDA boards and commissions – not only the Minority Farmers Advisory Committee and the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers – but also those with other missions, including the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economic Advisory Board.  To view a list of current relevant USDA boards and committees, click here.

In addition to providing an opportunity to be heard, the Cooperators Conference featured a number of speakers, including Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Legislative Director for the USDA Office of Congressional Relations Tina May, a former NSAC staff member.  Noting that socially disadvantaged constituencies have a role in shaping the next farm bill, May advised the audience to be most effective by taking the time to organize thoughts and by sending papers that explain core issues and policy ideas before meeting with government officials.

The lack of baseline for 37 farm bill programs with mandatory funding is a pressing issue, warned Anne Simmons, Professional Staff for the US House Committee on Agriculture.  She noted that the leadership of the House Agriculture Committee is considering a bigger focus on crop insurance and risk management in the farm bill reauthorization, but is receiving push back from people who like the current commodity programs.

Senior Advisor to the Secretary Karis Gutter explained the USDA Strike Force Initiative, which seeks to link persistent poverty areas in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia with the USDA resources that already exist in these areas.  The strike force will work with community-based organizations to improve access to the USDA programs.

Villanueva spoke from the floor, encouraging USDA to continue to solicit feedback outside of Washington, DC and from a broader number of organizations and individuals.

Dr. Gail Christopher, Vice President for Programs Strategy of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, spoke at the final luncheon.

“I believe that she brought some sense of closure that helped to deal with the tension in the room,” said Villanueva.  “Despite an awkward beginning, I believe the conference opened doors between the USDA and socially disadvantaged farmers.”

Farmers (standing left to right) Joaquina Maldonado, Margarita Salinas, Florencio Zamora, and Roxanne Villarreal stand with NSAC OC member Lydia Villanueva and Quinton Robinson, Director of Office of Small Disadvantaged Business Utilization (center).

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers

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