Ag Secretary: USDA adjusting aid to Hispanic and Latino farmers


March 22nd, 2012

Omaha, NE – Nebraska’s Hispanic and Latino population has increased exponentially over the last decade, yet according to the latest ag census, relatively few Latinos or Hispanics operate farms in the state. Clay Masters sat down with United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this month to talk about a new report released this week by the Center for Rural Affairs, which looks at improving the use of USDA programs among Hispanic and Latino farmers and ranchers.

United States Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. (Photo credit Wikimedia Commons)

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CLAY MASTERS: The Center for Rural Affairs based in Lyons, Nebraska is putting out a study on the barriers Hispanic and Latino farmers face, specifically in Nebraska. There’s a lot of barriers similar to anybody trying to expand or acquire land, but on top of that there are cultural and language barriers, limited economic resources, limited knowledge of USDA programs they can take advantage of and then just an overall lack of understanding how farming works in the United States. Given all that, what role does the USDA play in helping overcome these barriers?

Vilsack: First of all, we want a workforce that’s diverse and that relate to people from all walks of life that we want a workforce that looks more like America. That’s why we’ve made a concerted effort to increase our diversity hiring and we’ve seen that take place. Secondly, we want to take more advantage of our beginning farmer and rancher development program to create opportunities to go out into minority communities and make sure that people are aware of our programs.

I mentioned earlier that the notion of a strike force, what that is is a very concentrated effort by USDA in areas that we know are populated by large numbers of minorities or individuals who may not be fully aware of the USDA programs. And we’re making a concerted effort to work with community building organizations that have trust and faith in that community to be able to to ensure that people learn about our programs and have some success in participating in those programs. And it’s about creating an understanding and appreciation for making sure that people understand if they are not able to succeed in getting one of our programs, the reason why, so that they receive some indication of what they need to work on or what they need to improve. So it’s a combination of a lot of things, and we’re also making a concerted effort to make sure that information is available bilingually in English and Spanish. We’ve done this with our nutrition programs.

We’ve done this with many of our farm programs, so it’s a combination of a variety of activities that have taken place over the last couple of years that might not be reflected in a study depending upon the time frame of the study, but we are making progress and we know we’re making progress because our equal opportunity claims, our civil rights claims, and our mission areas have gone down significantly since we started this effort.

Video version of this interview

CLAY MASTERS: Are the solutions widespread? Is this a one-size-fits-all? I’m talking specifically about the study in Nebraska, but how do you move forward with a whole lot of different states that have very different ag climates?

Vilsack: Well, that’s what Strike Force is designed to do. We started with three states in the deep South. We’ve now expanded it to three additional states in the Southwest and we’re gonna continue to focus on the states where historically, we’ve had the biggest set of issues or problems with discrimination. It’s another strategy. At the same time, we’re doing that, we’re increasing diversity within our own ranks, within our own employment of USDA employees, which will make it a little bit easier. At the same time, we’re encouraging commodity groups to expand the diversity of folks that they submit for boards and commissions. We’re also obviously by settling these lawsuits, we’re trying to create a different attitude about USDA. It’s not unreasonable to understand why people would be reluctant to come to USDA if their grandfather or their relative had a poor experience with USDA. So we’re trying to re-engage people and doing this with community building organizations. I meet with a number of Hispanic and Latino organizations on a regular basis to get feedback and to give them an update on what we’re doing.

CLAY MASTERS: We’re doing this documentary is a part of an overall project we’re doing about the farmer of the future. Looking forward with this new Farm Bill, what can you say and a very simple question of who is the farmer of the future?

Vilsack: It’s many different people, depending upon your interest. It could very well be an individual who wants to work with a local farmer’s market or a consortium of farmer’s markets to have direct consumer– producer to consumer sales, which is a growing aspect of farming and marketing today. It may very well be someone who basically does not send the grain to the local elevator, but may sell it send it to a buyer refinery that’s located 10 or 15 miles down the road that is producing not just fuel, but also chemicals, enzymes, polymers, fabrics, fibers, a variety of things that are currently being made in over 31 hundred companies in what we refer to as the bio-based economy.

It could very well be someone who is very committed to conservation and has a good deal of its land of their land in conservation programs, expanding habitat, and making access to hunters and anglers to their land to hunt and fish and provide that outdoor recreation opportunity, which is an enormous economic driver. A seven hundred and 30 billion dollar industry is what outdoor recreation is. Or it could very well be the farmer as we know the farmer today. Someone who has a large scale operation that’s producing 85 per cent of what we consume and what we use and a substantial portion of what we export to the rest of the world and maybe providing soybeans or corn or other products to a market in China or to Japan or Viet Nam or Southeast Asia or Europe or sub-Sahara in Africa or South America. So it’s you there’s no single definition of the farmer of the future. I think what I would say is that the future for farming is optimistic. It’s hopeful. We’re beginning to see competition for crops, which makes prices stable and secure and we’re beginning to see creative new ways to use our agricultural production to meet the fuel needs, the energy needs, the chemical needs of this country, which I think is all positive.

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