State farm financing expert tapped to help USDA address discrimination issues

By: - March 4, 2022 5:41 am
A farmer picks produce

The USDA is attempting to address a “breakdown in reputation.” (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has work to do when it comes to equity. That work will be taken up by a new commission that was formed in February and will provide recommendations to the department about how to address past discrimination and better serve minority farmers moving forward.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA has not historically done enough to provide all farmers and ranchers an equal chance of success, a situation the department is trying to change with the commission’s help. Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and women farmers have brought lawsuits against the department for discriminatory lending practices over the past three decades. 

The commission is tasked with reviewing the department’s programs, structures, and practices that create barriers to access, systemic discrimination, or result in racial or economic disparities. A subcommittee focusing on agriculture will include New Hampshire farm finance expert and Epsom resident Gary Matteson, senior vice president at the Farm Credit Council. 

“USDA has suffered from a breakdown in reputation that they have to overcome,” Matteson said.

One question he’ll be focusing on through the committee is, “How do we address interactions with farmers, with customers, with institutions in the future so that the folks that USDA interacts with are actually better served and equitably served?”

Matteson has also previously worked on a USDA advisory committee aimed at helping beginning farmers, and he said that experience showed him how the USDA can make changes. Oftentimes, he found that new farmers didn’t know what to expect from the USDA, or how to make use of its programs, a problem he linked to financial literacy. One focus of his work has been to clarify how the USDA is meant to work with small and beginning farmers. That is, as a support system rather than as the primary lender, which is a common misconception he’s found.

And Matteson said the work being undertaken by the department mirrors steps the private sector is also taking to recruit a more diverse workforce and reach out to beginning and minority farmers. The goal is for diverse farmers to work with employees at the USDA who look like them and come from similar backgrounds.  

Upgrading computer systems is another area where the agency has room to improve, Matteson said. Moving loan applications online could level the playing field and lessen discrimination based on how someone looks. “There’s a lot less chance for discrimination in that process. You either fit what those questions are asking or you don’t,” he said.

One equity issue Matteson highlighted in New Hampshire is recent immigrants looking to enter farming. While there are nonprofits like ORIS, or the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, that focus on working with these farmers, their challenges are often invisible in a state that is among the whitest in the nation.   

“It’s not like this is a problem that you see on the street every day,” he said. “Of course, most people don’t see problems for beginning farmers anyway because there’s so few beginning farmers, and agriculture is such a small percentage of what any given person in New Hampshire is doing.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.