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Reflections on the Equity Commission’s Final Recommendations to USDA

By Michelle Hughes

For the past two years, I’ve served as a community-based organizational representative on the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Equity Commission. When I was appointed to the Agriculture Subcommittee by the Secretary of Agriculture in late 2021, I published a blog post about how I planned to use the opportunity to help USDA address a history of acts of discrimination against perpetually marginalized agricultural producers and their communities.

Michelle Hughes, Poppy Hernandez (Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer in the Executive Office of the State of Michigan), Savi Horne (Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention Project), and Former Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh

Over the course of my service on the Equity Commission, I’ve done my best to hold both my fellow Commission members, and the USDA leadership and staff that facilitate the Commission accountable to the people, purpose, and outcomes of this historic advisory body. Upon completion of  the Equity Commission’s goals and objectives, I am left with a variety of feelings and reflections on the process. On one hand, I remain grateful and excited about the opportunity and for what it means for the future of the partnership between  young, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers and the USDA. On the other hand, my service on the Equity Commission validated the depth of the impact of decades of discrimination and exclusion that have been perpetuated by the Department, and I’m frustrated with the obstacles and limitations that exist within the federal government to address that legacy.

The culmination of the collective efforts of the Equity Commission can be seen through the publication of the Commission’s Final Report, which was formally presented to the Secretary of Agriculture at USDA’s inaugural National Equity Summit on February 22, 2024. The bulk of the Final Report are the Commission’s 66 recommendations, which we have been working on for more than two years to support USDA’s role in fulfilling the Biden’s Administration commitment to advancing equity across the federal government. The recommendations include guidance on a wide spectrum of issues USDA plans to address, from the structure, practices, and cultural norms of the Department, to supporting farmworkers and their families, to enhancing housing, broadband, and waterways in rural communities. While it was a difficult task, Commission members worked hard to ensure we advanced a comprehensive list of proposals the Department could implement that center the needs of the many communities we represent.


In relation to Young Farmers’ federal policy efforts, specifically the Young Farmer Agenda, the Final Report includes recommendations on heirs property, land access, conservation and climate change, technical assistance, and Farm Service Agency loan programs, that overlap with many of the Coalition’s asks for the upcoming Farm Bill as informed by a survey of over 10,000 young and BIPOC farmers across the country. The Young Farmers policy team and I are excited about the overlap between the final recommendations and a number of our federal policy asks centered on land access and climate change and the general prioritizing of the needs of young, new, and beginning farmers in the guidance that was delivered to the Secretary. The Final Report includes the complete recommendations from each of these categories, including:

Recommendation 14: Land Access

  1. Ensure equitable funding to community-led land access and transition projects designed to create land security for farmers.
  2. Fund and require the National Ag Statistics Service to conduct the Tenure, Ownership and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) Survey.
  3. Increase investments in the Heirs Property Relending Program, and maintain and expand funding and technical assistance for the Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program.
  4. Provide continued funding for cooperative agreements with community-based organizations, such as the NRCS agreements for Racial Justice and Equity, and FSA agreement for Discrimination Financial Assistance Program.
  5. Implement thorough racial equity informed evaluation and reporting requirements to not only measure who is benefitting, but also to measure program effectiveness in facilitating secure land tenure for young, new and beginning, women, and BIPOC farmers.

Recommendation 15: Conservation

  1. Include equitable climate actions in USDA conservation programs including decreasing the number of required years of production, increasing incentive amounts and advance payment options for historically underserved producers, and streamlining the application process for both beginning and small-scale farmers.
  2. Adjust the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to integrate and compensate for the use of Indigenous and knowledge and land management practices.
  3. Prioritize research that helps small-scale, diversified farmers implement climatesmart conservation practices and measure their climate mitigation impacts through methods with a proven track record of success.
  4. Increase funding for technical assistance to be linguistically and culturally appropriate and invest in local experts and communities through cooperative agreements with tribes, acequias, and other experts.
  5. Require an analysis of the voluntary producer demographic data on an annual basis to identify any trends in the utilization of conservation programs by young, new and beginning, women, and BIPOC producers.
  6. Codify the new Micro Farm program through the Risk Management Agency to improve access to crop insurance for operations that are diversified, organic, and/or selling in local, regional, and specialty markets.
  7. Mandate NRCS provides the public with an impact report on how EQIP funding has been used, and the impact those dollars have had on the environment.

Recommendation 18: Farm Service Agency Loan Programs

  1. Transform FSA into a customer service centered agency that provides equitable treatment that responds to the borrowing needs of historically underserved farmers through clear eligibility, simpler processes, and flexible administration.
  2. Examine FSA loan processes and use plain language and clearly describe eligibility criteria regarding loan programs and processes to improve equitable access to underserved populations of both new and experienced farmers and ranchers.
  3. Provide additional flexibility regarding the timing and processing of loans, including the ability to offer an initial statement of eligibility or accept preliminary paperwork before an application is submitted. Additional flexibility regarding loan terms and conditions should be available when structuring financial packages for underserved farmers and ranchers.


We’re similarly excited about the thread that exists throughout the Report that suggests USDA continue offering cooperative agreements to a set group of organizations servicing the BIPOC farmers, ranchers, and farm workers with whom USDA seeks to continue relationship repair. Young Farmers and the cooperative organizations that have worked to ensure our communities apply for programs like the Coronavirus Financial Assistance Program, the Land, Capital, and Market Access Program, and the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program, have formed a trusted ecosystem of service providers that serve as the bridge between farmers and USDA programming.

All the members of the USDA Equity Commission

I do have some critical feedback on the Final Report, however, based on my perspective that the next generation of working farmers is a diverse and intersectional coalition of young land stewards and farmworkers. Two groups in particular–farmworkers and Tribes–are supported in a comparatively minimal way in the final proposals. While Recommendations 22-26 are dedicated to supporting farmworkers exclusively, if implemented, the guidance ensures merely basic human rights and a standard of institutional support for farmworkers that should already be available to any community working in our food and agriculture system. For example, the inclusion of farmworkers in employment laws that protect safe and adequate work environments is not a progressive policy recommendation–it’s something that should be afforded to farmworkers without argument.

The Final Report underutilizes the term “Tribes” in a way that could hinder USDA’s ability to work with Tribal leadership to properly address the barriers that exist for Tribes and their citizens and on Tribal lands. The Report focuses on “Indigenous people,” an undeniably overlooked population in agriculture that should be centered, yet the recognition of Tribes as sovereign, federally recognized governments responsible for the health, safety and well-being of their citizens and their lands is rare throughout the text. Explicitly naming “Tribes” as governments with citizens/members and “Tribal lands” throughout the recommendations would create 1) effective mutual understanding of the power of Tribes, Tribal jurisdiction over Tribal lands, and their government-to-government relationship with the USDA, and 2) opportunities for active engagement and proper collaboration with USDA programs. The Native Farm Bill Coalition’s recent blog post, authored by their Co-Chairs, one of whom is Equity Commission Agriculture Subcommittee Member Kari Jo Lawrence, explains in greater depth the impact of this decision, and the need for a nuanced approach to servicing Tribes and their unique barriers.

As we look to the future, I will continue holding USDA accountable to the Department and the Biden Administration’s commitment to racial equity through accountability to the recommendations in the Final Report. Simultaneously, Young Farmers will continue to push Congress to advance our priorities in the next Farm Bill to ensure USDA is equipped with the authorities, program design, and financial resources necessary to bring these proposals to fruition.

In my role on the Commission I advise, but in my role as Co-Executive Director I advocate with farmers, fellow staff members, and organizational partners to authorize and implement the policy proposals that can make these recommendations a reality.
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