USDA Looks Good to Washington's Hispanic Farmers

Despite the Sherrod brouhaha, locals say the agency serves minorities well.

In addition to all the other ways that the Shirley Sherrod fiasco made the Obama administration look bad, it also dredged up the U.S. Department of Agriculture's checkered history on racial issues. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack himself referred to it as justification for Sherrod's initial banishment. But while the department unquestionably has overlooked minority farmers in the past, giving rise to lawsuits and expensive settlements, it's actually made great strides—as farmers interviewed for the Weekly's recent cover story ("This Is My Country," July 14) made clear. These days, the USDA is considered the best source of funding for minority farmers, according to sources in Yakima Valley's Latino farming community. In fact, the USDA's Farm Service Agency has a loan program specifically targeting "socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers." "The FSA is the only [lender] that doesn't require a down payment," notes Malaquías Flores, head of a program at Washington State University that helps aspiring Latino farmers find funding. The FSA also offers low interest rates to minority farmers, he says. Among the farmers who got off the ground thanks to the FSA: Sergio Marquez. The Mexican immigrant initially thought he didn't have the means to take advantage of his boss's offer to buy out the farm where Marquez was working as foreman. But now he runs a nearly 200-acre apple orchard that employs 50. Luz Gutierrez, who runs Rural Community Development Resources, a Yakima nonprofit that helps Latino farmers and other entrepreneurs, also waxes enthusiastic about the FSA program. In late June, she persuaded USDA officials, including Under Secretary Edward Avalos, to come to Yakima to talk to Latino farmers about how to sell their produce to the department, which buys food that it then donates to food banks and the like. So while in some quarters the USDA may have a reputation as "the last plantation," as Vilsack put it recently, in the Yakima Valley the USDA seems to be viewed through more cherry-colored lenses.

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