(CNSNews.com) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack intends to appoint "socially disadvantaged farmers" to voting memberships on county committees -- the local farmer panels that serve as a direct link between the farm community and the USDA.
Right now, all 7,700 county committee members – representing 2,244 county jurisdictions – are elected by other farmers. The USDA now plans to appoint extra members on some committees for the sake of diversity.
"As we continue to build a USDA that is responsive to the needs of an evolving, 21st century agricultural economy, we must ensure a strong and sustainable future for these important committees," Vilsack said. "Appointing new voting members to committees that lack (socially disadvantaged) representation will help ensure that county committees continue to play a vital and relevant role in delivering important federal farm programs to citizens of rural communities across our nation."
County committees, comprised of 3 or more farmers, were formed in the 1930s to oversee federal farm programs that serve local producers. They provide local input on commodity price support loans and payments, conservation programs, disaster payments, emergency programs, and payment eligibility.
A USDA fact sheet defines a socially disadvantaged group as one "whose members have been subject to racial, ethnic or gender prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities. These groups consist of American Indians or Alaskan Natives, Asians, Blacks or African Americans, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, Hispanics and women."
USDA's Farm Service Agency, which works collaboratively with county committees, published an interim rule on committee appointments in the Federal Register on Monday, and the public comment period runs for 60 days.
USDA says its authority to appoint voting socially disadvantaged members was granted in the 2002 farm bill passed by Congress. The regulation announced on Monday allows the Secretary of Agriculture to ensure fair representation on county committees by appointing a voting member in areas identified “under-representing the diversity of area producers.”
Each year, USDA says it will conduct a fresh statistical analysis, and appointments with voting authority will continue to occur in areas identified as needing more diversity.
"We are proud of the great diversity that makes up our rural communities," said FSA Administrator Bruce Nelson, "and appointing voting members to committees that lack representation is an important step in helping to maintain a robust county committee system for all producers."
Under the leadership of Secretary Vilsack, USDA says it is ushering in "a new era of civil rights" for the department.