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July 20, 2022

By: Sharla Strong, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

This spring, my classmates and I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with multiple food policy experts who work within and alongside the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As graduate students in the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate program with Arizona State University, our class had the privilege to meet with politically appointed leaders within the Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Mission Area. FPAC includes the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). The FSA, NRCS and RMA are three key farmer and rancher facing agencies within the USDA and they provide services across multiple field offices in every state. 

Leaders with a Mission

Gloria Montaño Greene, Deputy Under Secretary of FPAC, has an extensive background in advocacy, equity and activism. Montaño Greene began our conversation by describing how the pandemic has caused FPAC to examine their systems, where there are gaps, and who was hurt by the pandemic. Her grassroots organizing experience is a great asset as she thinks about equity and climate change.

Zach Ducheneaux, the Administrator of the USDA Farm Service Agency, spoke about his previous experience working in non-profits and identifying gaps in services provided by government programs. Ducheneaux has spent most of his career outside the USDA and working from the outside to bridge gaps and bring attention to needs and solutions. Now in his new position, he describes programs as a machine that has been built in a certain way and we need to change the machine if we want another outcome. As an Administrator, he describes the need to push boundaries. As a former rancher, Ducheneaux relates this to ranching and how pasturing animals will stretch and reach through the fence to get to what is on the other side. Like the animals, Ducheneaux says that he wants to “lean on the fence” and to include those who have been excluded by the boundaries of programs. 

Tim Gannon, the Chief of Staff for FPAC, described being a young person witnessing the farm crisis of the 1980s in Iowa. Gannon described how the USDA is the part of the government that really cares about rural America and that when people talk about the decline of rural America, the USDA is a part of the solution. He highlighted the need to help the next generation of farmers and consider what they need to be successful. Gannon also referenced the worldwide trade issues and how the war in Ukraine could cause hunger in parts of the world if Ukraine crops cannot be planted, harvested and shipped. Decisions in the spring are critical, as planting should be underway. Gannon also mentioned climate change and the billion-dollar effort to “figure out how farmers can not only be a part of the solution, but make some money from being a part of that solution.” 

The Equity Commission

While looking out across the room, Montaño Greene described a kind of deja vu from being in that same exact room two days previously with the Equity Commission, which is a historical effort within the USDA to be able to have an explicit federal advisory committee to give USDA recommendations to address long standing equity issues. She described how the seats in which we were sitting were the same that the group of powerful people had sat. The Equity Commission, representing those who have been experiencing the history of agriculture and rural development, were sitting in that room and developing very thoughtful recommendations to USDA on how to actually strengthen that development. 

Equity is a part of the USDA strategic plan that was announced in February 2022. The document describes how USDA is rising to address climate change and climate change mitigation in agriculture and rural America. Also, how they are preparing new markets, how they are thinking about equity, and how that is reflected in employment within the USDA to make it a great place to work. 

Montaño Greene explained that the Equity Commission stood up in conjunction with other efforts across USDA, and especially FPAC, to address equity. The Equity Commission is the explicit federal advisory committee to advise the Secretary of Agriculture and give recommendations on priorities for addressing problems, and could include items from programmatic to legislative fixes. 

The Equity Commission is making proposals and researching equity solutions for all the USDA encompasses. Montaño Greene stated that the USDA is more than agriculture and it touches our lives in ways that are not always intuitive to the public, such as the Department of Education or the Pentagon. The USDA affects people’s lives every day. For Greene, coming from a rural community that did not have access to water, if local people had known that the USDA programs could have helped, they would have had drinking water at her house. The Equity Commission will be developing a set of proposals that could range from informing the farm bill, making changes to handbooks, guiding culture change, or making budget recommendations. The Equity Commission recordings are posted on the Equity Commission website: https://www.usda.gov/equity-commission#meetings

Each mission area has developed a respective equity action plan, so for FPAC, they are examining how they are supporting ranchers and farmers in that safety net, conservation, agricultural credit, and risk management aspect. The equity action plan is not informed by the Equity Commission; it is what FPAC has determined to be their north star moving forward on actions. It is a living document currently focused on the FSA being the point of the spear where they foresee having the greatest impact. There is a second action plan called the Justice40 action plan that is part of the White House’s Justice40 Initiative focused on environmental justice work. Spending and investment on environmental justice tends to be seen as only an EPA or Department of Interior role, however the USDA has quite a bit of collateral to be able to address environmental justice and those communities impacted. The Equity Commission will eventually come out with results, but in the meantime even the dialogue during the hearings will impact how FPAC prioritizes within their internal equity action plan.  

Turning a new page in the FSA handbook

Ducheneaux spoke to what Montaño Greene referred to as the “tip of the spear” and how the FSA, of which Ducheneaux is now Administrator, has historically had challenges related to discrimination and civil rights. Reports going to the 1960’s have found discrimination at USDA in both program delivery and the treatment of employees, which have resulted in a number of lawsuits alleging discrimination, and settlements such as the Keepseagle Settlement and the Pigford Cases.

Ducheneaux sees an opportunity with the new Equity Commission and people who want to do something about the discrimination now. Ducheneaux explained that the USDA has had  equity-related advisory committees and recommendations in the past, but the initial position of the Department and the Agency has been just to defend their position and explain why they are not that bad. Ducheneaux is leading by example by accepting the criticism on behalf of the USDA and FSA and saying, “We are that bad. And we are trying to fix it.” 

Ducheneaux believes it all starts with the handbooks that FSA employees use to deliver that policy out in the countryside. He said, “The example where it's most poignant to me of how we do not treat people equally is the micro loan application. We have this micro loan product that's a fantastic tool that we're supposed to be able to come in and fill out six pages and get up to $50,000 to go out and do your agriculture production.” Ducheneaux gave out his phone number freely and shared a story about how a producer called him with a question about the micro loan application. He set up a meeting to work through the application with the producer, bringing his 20 years of experience financing agriculture and as the Administrator for the FSA, and thought he had been successful. When the micro loan application got to the county loan official, it was marked up and demonstrated the fact that the FSA processes are not built for inclusion, but they are built trying to find ways to exclude people and keep them out. Through conversations with the farm loan program leadership team, they were able to whittle the 16 point incomplete application down to one item, the articles of incorporation. Ducheneaux questioned whether they needed any of the 16 items, since the items are not asked for on the application. Any of the 16 items could have been resolved in the two hour in-person conversation with the producer and his loan officer, but instead of taking initiative to resolve the issues, they were defending the bad position of rejecting an application. 

Top priorities for Ducheneaux are to simplify the applications for producers, set a precedent for the Administrator to be more accessible, and that the Administrator must know how to complete the FSA applications. Ducheneaux also has a goal of communicating about the positive things that USDA is doing and helping people understand the shared vision for our country. Ducheneaux wants to recruit people who are passionate about public service and wants to reverse the attrition on federal employees that has taken place over the past forty years. Under his leadership, the FSA is seeking more federal employees to deliver services. 

One of the major takeaways from the meeting was how to institutionalize changes that you want to make. For example, the handbook is central to how FSA officers deliver services, and those changes have a great chance of living on. Also, how new staff are trained creates cultural change within FSA. Montaño Greene shared a quote from César Chávez, “you cannot un-educate the educated” and the initiatives that can be built under your leadership are like planting seeds. So even if the administration after you guts your initiative, the people who had been doing that work are still out in the world doing similar work and are able to continue that work going forward or come back to rebuild in the future.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.