In mid-August, members of the USDA's Minority Farmer Advisory Committee will meet for the first time to discuss efforts to increase minority participation in USDA programs and services. The establishment of this committee builds upon existing cultural transformation initiatives underway and will help ensure fair and equal access to USDA services. Members will advise Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on additional ways the USDA can continue building an inclusive future with targeted outreach and assistance to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

The Minority Farmer Advisory Committee is authorized under the 2008 farm bill and will advise Vilsack on "implementation of section 2501 of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990; methods of maximizing the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs; and civil rights activities within the Department as such activities relate to participants in such programs."

Members of the committee are appointed for two year terms. The nominees include socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers; representatives of nonprofit organizations that work with minority farmers and ranchers; civil rights professionals; representatives from institutions of higher learning; and other persons deemed appropriate.

The following individuals are appointed to the Advisory Committee: Robert Anderson, Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, Earlsboro, Okla.; Donna Brew, farmer/rancher, Gooding, Idaho; Ben Burkett, farmer/rancher, Petal, Miss.; William Buster, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Jeannie Crittendon, farmer, Jackson, Mich.; Archie Hart, farmer, Knight Dale, N.C.; Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association, Mora, N.M.; Omar Garza, U.S. Mexico Border Coalition, St. Elena, Texas; Dr. Dewayne Goldman, Black Growers Council, Pine Bluff, Ark.; William Hudson, Florida A & M University, Tallahassee, Fla.; Richard Molinar, University of California, Reedley, Calif.; Brian Thomas, farmer/rancher, Owyhee, Nev.; Baldemar Velasquez, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Toledo, Ohio; Randall Ware, farmer/rancher, Fort Cobb, Okla.; and John Zippert, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Eutaw, Ala.

Under Secretary Vilsack's leadership, USDA is addressing civil rights complaints that go back decades to resolve allegations of past discrimination and usher in "a new era of civil rights" for the USDA. In February 2010, Vilsack announced the Pigford II settlement with African American farmers, and in October 2010, he announced the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers. In February 2011, Secretary Vilsack announced the establishment of a process to resolve the claims of Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers. An overview of Secretary Vilsack's comprehensive efforts is available here.

In May 2011, Secretary Vilsack released a Civil Rights Assessment report of USDA's field-based program delivery that was promised in an April 2009 memorandum to employees and details an aggressive plan to promote equal access and opportunity at the department. The report made department-wide recommendations that will help USDA improve service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and also suggests agency-specific changes to enhance program delivery and outreach to promote diversity, inclusion and accessibility. A significant number of the recommendations included in the report already have been or currently are being integrated into USDA operations. An internal working group chaired by Secretary Vilsack has been established to implement many of the recommendations within the framework of cultural transformation. While many recommendations can be implemented administratively, some of the recommendations will require policy or statutory changes, and others will need to be considered as part of the 2012 farm bill deliberations.