Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Agriculture, is facing questions about his treatment of Black farmers when he held the position in the Obama administration. He was embroiled in a controversy during that time when he wrongly fired a Georgia employee. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
This post was updated 2 p.m. Feb. 3 to include this correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the connection that Lawrence Lucas, head of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, has to farming. Lucas grew up in a Black farm family.
WASHINGTON — Tom Vilsack, the president’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, will likely face questions about his treatment of Black farmers and his record on civil rights at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden’s decision to tap the former Iowa governor, who also served as USDA chief during the Obama administration, has angered some civil rights leaders and Black farmers. They say that during his previous tenure, he failed to adequately address racial discrimination and didn’t provide economic relief for Black producers. His treatment of former USDA staff member Shirley Sherrod of Albany remains a sore point.
Black farmers also say that at the USDA under Vilsack, agricultural census data was distorted to falsely show that there was a boom in the number of Black farmers.
An investigation by The Counter, a non-profit news organization that covers agriculture and food in the U.S., found that agricultural census data indeed was distorted, and that other changes defended by Vilsack and aimed at improving systemic discrimination against Black farmers were “cosmetic.”
“I think it’s a slap in the face,” Eddie Slaughter, a Black Georgia farmer from Buena Vista said of the Vilsack nomination. “I just feel that we wasted our votes supporting Joe Biden if that’s what he’s going to give us.”
Vilsack did not respond to requests for comment from States Newsroom made through the U.S. Dairy Export Council, where he has served as president and CEO.
But the Biden administration did release a letter from Joe Leonard, who worked as the assistant secretary for civil rights at USDA under Vilsack and defended Vilsack’s record on civil rights.
“He made it clear that USDA would have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination,” he said. “Moreover, he directed (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights) to lead a comprehensive program to improve USDA’s record on civil rights and move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.”
Leonard said that claims of a backlog of discrimination complaints under Vilsack’s tenure were inaccurate because “the vast majority of the items filed did not constitute civil rights complaints against USDA.”
In text messages to the Washington Post, Vilsack said he held a December call with a group of Black farmers and advocates from several states to discuss 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.”
Prior to serving in the Obama administration, Vilsack was governor of Iowa for two terms, a state senator and the mayor of Mt. Pleasant. He also made an unsuccessful bid for the 2008 presidential nomination.
His nomination was welcomed by major agricultural groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council and United Fresh Produce Association.
Meeting with Black farmers
The Biden administration and earlier, the transition team, have tried to smooth things over with the Black farming community.
Two weeks after Vilsack’s nomination, he held the virtual meeting with several Black farm organizations, where he listened to their concerns and promised to provide assistance to Black farmers, according to a readout of the meeting provided by the transition team. The meeting was closed to the public.
Top civil rights leaders had warned Biden that his pick could anger Black farmers. In a video leaked to the Intercept, civil rights leaders held a virtual meeting in December with Biden and, at the time, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
During the virtual meeting, NAACP President Derrick Johnson argued that Vilsack’s treatment of Black farmers and his mishandling of Sherrod could hurt turnout in Georgia’s Jan. 5 twin U.S. Senate runoffs.
Vilsack in a widely publicized episode during his Obama term wrongfully forced Sherrod to resign.
“Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero,” Johnson said in the meeting, according to the video.
The Sherrod episode dates to 2010, when the late conservative writer Andrew Breitbart released an edited video of Sherrod, who at that time was the Georgia state director of rural development for USDA, speaking at a conference. The edited video took her words out of context to make it seem that she was being prejudiced against a white farmer.
Vilsack made her resign, but when the full video came to light, it showed that Sherrod actually helped the white farmer. Vilsack and the White House quickly apologized, but their reaction angered many civil rights leaders.
Vilsack extended Sherrod an offer to come back to the USDA, but because it didn’t include her former job, she declined. She is currently working as the executive director for the grassroots organizing group the Southwest Georgia Project.
However, even though Sherrod never went back to the agency, she and Vilsack later worked together on a program to direct more than $23 billion in loans for homes, farms and other assistance in more than 900 counties trying to overcome poverty.
Sherrod in an interview with States Newsroom said Vilsack has had time to reflect on the mistakes he made at USDA, especially in how he treats Black employees and Black farmers. She said that if Vilsack is going to right the wrongs of not only his past but of USDA, he is going to need to surround himself with diverse advisers who are skilled in working for racial equality.
The Biden administration recently nominated Jewel H. Bronaugh, Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, to serve as Vilsack’s deputy secretary. If she’s confirmed by the Senate, Bronaugh will be the first woman of color to serve as deputy secretary.
Sherrod was also included in Vilsack’s meeting with Black farming organizations.
“I’m a believer that people can and should change, but I also know that you can’t leave it up to chance, you have to stay on it,” Sherrod said. “I think we have to push Biden and Vilsack to do the right thing.”
Both of Georgia’s Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, were victors in the runoffs, and carried Senate Democrats to a 50-50 party split in the chamber.
Lloyd Wright, a Black farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck and former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton, worked as an adviser at USDA for about 37 years. He briefly worked with Vilsack, and said Vilsack tasked him with addressing more than 14,000 discrimination complaints to the agency that had occurred under the Bush administration, from 2001 to 2008.
Wright found about 4,000 claims that warranted merit, but many of the discrimination claims were limited to a two-year statutory limit that prevented the agency from awarding any financial compensation. Many of those discrimination claims were from Black farmers, Wright said.
“We needed to extend the statute of limitation and Congress would have to do that,” Wright said.
Wright said he helped draft up legislation which was passed by the House twice, but it stalled in the Senate, though Democrats controlled both chambers at the time.
“I think we could have gotten it passed,” Wright said. “What we needed from the secretary was help.”
While Wright said the agency missed that opportunity to help Black farmers, he’s hoping that new legislation can pass Congress.
The bill, the Justice for Black Farmers Act, would create a land grant program to encourage a next generation of Black farmers and protect existing Black farmers from further land loss, among other things.
“Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a statement on the bill.
“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century.”
Other Democrats backing the bill are Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
But some advocates like Lawrence Lucas, who grew up in a Black farm family and is president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, worry that Vilsack won’t back the measure and will instead move to create a commission to discuss issues within the community rather than take action.
The Biden administration has not taken a stance on the bill.
But as part of its platform, the transition team said on its website that it would “advance a comprehensive effort to assist in both the purchase of farmland and the ability of Black, Brown, and Native farmers to keep that land.”
The transition site also said Biden would “implement guidelines and regulations that preserve heirs’ ownership of family farms and ensure that these landowners have equal access to federal credit and agricultural programs” and establish a farmland trust to help new farmers from underrepresented communities obtain land.
Biden would “advance fairness, accountability, and transparency at the United States Department of Agriculture,” the team said, by eliminating the backlog of civil rights complaints, streamlining and expediting the complaint process and reinstating a foreclosure moratorium for those whose complaints are not resolved.
But Lucas said he has little trust in the incoming administration to protect Black farmers from losing their land or to offer economic relief.
He pointed out that the meeting among Vilsack and a handful of Black farmers was not open to the public and that there’s no endorsement yet of the Justice for Black Farmers Act.
“We want something done now rather than later,” Lucas said. “We are dreading another four years under Vilsack.”
Vilsack’s hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
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