USDA official speaks to conference attendees

The 56th annual Rural Life Conference, sponsored by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, brought farmers, advocates, policymakers and educators together at the Pine Bluff Convention Center Friday morning to discuss “Building Resilience in Agriculture, Rural Communities and Families in a Challenging Economy.”

Pearlie S. Reed, United States Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary for Administration, told a lunchtime audience of official efforts to reshape an institutional culture in an agency that has led many to label the USDA as the “last plantation.”

“I was asked to talk about what we are doing with the Cultural Transformation Initiative at the USDA,” Reed said. “When Secretary [Tom] Vilsack was nominated for the post, President Obama told him that he wanted him to change the perception of the USDA as the ‘last plantation.’ There have been issues that have caused the USDA to pay out billions and billions of dollars by not treating customers and employees more equitably.”

“The Cultural Transformation Initiative will hopefully address workforce needs a little bit better,” Reed said. “There are 120,000 employees at the USDA with between 1,000 and 1,500 new employees hired every month and around 10,000 hired every year. We need to do a better job of assembling a diverse employee pool from all walks of life.”

“We hire 5,000 to 8,000 student interns every year,” Reed said. “There is no reason any student at UAPB that is worth their salt can’t get started in the right direction as student trainees at the USDA. We at the USDA do a pretty good job getting people off to the right start.”

Reed said that the USDA has a strike force that is attempting to tackle issues related to areas of persistent poverty.

“We have been focused on persistent poverty counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia,” Reed said. “The biggest problem we have encountered is a deficit in leadership. We need to work with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and others to get leadership in place and to build local capacity for leadership.”

“I was with Secretary Vilsack on Tuesday at Virginia State, which is an 1890 [historically black] university,” Reed said. “We discussed the 2501 grant program [for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who work with land-grant institutions] targeted to the 1890 community.”

“The USDA will be paying out $4 billion in civil rights claims in the coming months,” Reed said.

Reed said that civil rights claims involving Native Americans, Hispanics, women and black farmers are all in the settlement stage.

“The whole [Washington] D.C. establishment is committed to enacting the changes needed to end the last plantation at the USDA because of what it is costing us,” Reed said. “When Abraham Lincoln authorized the creation of the USDA he called it the people’s department and I can’t think of a better way to describe it now. It touches every aspect of life in America.”

1890 supporters need to do more

Reed said that supporters of historically black colleges and universities need to do more to fight for these institutions because other groups are doing a better job of securing funding for their interests.

“I am going to criticize the 1890 community in general,” Reed said. “You are not collectively as aggressive as you need to be in addressing the needs of the 1890 community. I think the 1890 community in general has gone to sleep.”

Reed said that supporters of Native American and Hispanic interests were being more vocal about their demands and as a consequence are getting more funding.

“I commend them for doing what they do but I would like to help the 1890 community more than they are allowing me to help them,” Reed said.

Reed said that the current Farm Bill provides for full funding of the 2501 grant program but that this could change as part of ongoing negotiations over the 2012 Farm Bill.

“The 2012 Farm Bill debate is in full swing,” Reed said. “Thanks to the foresight of some individuals the current Farm Bill has $75 million in funding for 2501 grants. You need to make sure that you are 100 percent engaged in working with your community to know how important 2501 and other programs are. We won’t have the resources to fund 2501 grants past this year without keeping funding in the new Farm Bill.”