By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
OXFORD, Ohio — The USDA Minority Farmers Advisory Committee (MFAC) recently hosted its first meeting since 2011. William Miller of Oxford, Ohio, an organic farmer newly appointed to a two-year term on the committee, attended that Savannah, Ga., meeting.
“The committee was established to maximize the participation of minority farmers in the USDA programs, also to monitor and involve ourselves in whatever civil rights activities within the Department of Agriculture need to be addressed dealing with issues of discrimination,” said Miller, who is also vice president of the Ohio Farmers Union.
The 2008 farm bill transferred the MFAC to the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, said Kenya Nicholas, the office’s program lead for Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers.
The MFAC had a large role in recommending to and advising USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on issues being faced by minorities.
Formed in 2010, much of its work focused on gross discriminatory actions that had taken place in the South, Miller said; however, the last MFAC meeting was in Albuquerque in 2011.
“The committee was dormant until this year,” Nicholas said.
“There was no funding to have a meeting. The funding was not reestablished. We revitalized the committee, we overcame all those barriers to have a meeting this year.
“This committee met the end of September and they had a document for the Secretary within two weeks; I think that is almost unheard of. They tackled some of the pressing issues and they did so with a lot of passion; they came out of the door very bold and very organized.”
She explained this Congress-mandated advisory committee submitted letters to Vilsack on funding the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, established in the 2008 farm bill.
It also requested that Congress fully fund the outreach program for socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers. The bill awarded the program $20 million, but that funding was then cut by half.
The second letter was to expedite the disposition of class action lawsuit funds, Miller said.
The Pigford lawsuit was filed more than 15 years ago to address discrimination by USDA – some of the funds have been distributed, but many said it was too little, too late.
“A lot of the farmers that were eligible and could prove it – it had to be proven that they had been discriminated against – a lot of those folks had already passed away,” he noted.
“With that settlement, the maximum that any individual could get was $50,000, which wasn’t a lot of money. The discrimination went back to 1981. A lot of these people had already lost their farms and moved on.”
There are billions of dollars that have not been distributed, Nicholas said. MFAC wants to make sure that money gets into the hands of those who need it. “The committee wants to get that money out instead of just sitting, while the people that need it are closing their businesses.”
One of Miller’s areas of concern he hopes to promote through the committee is urban gardening.
“There are a lot of places where people, particularly minorities, have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “There are plenty of areas that these things could be grown.”
Jennie Crittendon of the Farm Service Agency County Office Committee, Jackson, Mich., is also a member of the MFAC from this region.