Sergio Marquez.jpg
Peter Mumford
As the brouhaha continues to spiral over Shirley Sherrod, the ousted U.S. Department of Agriculture official charged (unfairly) with making racist remarks, some

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USDA's Racist Legacy, Much Noted in Shirley Sherrod Affair, Seems Thing of The Past for Yakima Valley's Latino Farmers

Sergio Marquez.jpg
Peter Mumford
As the brouhaha continues to spiral over Shirley Sherrod, the ousted U.S. Department of Agriculture official charged (unfairly) with making racist remarks, some are delving into the department's history of discrimination. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack himself referred to it as justification for Sherrod's banishment (though he announced early today he will reconsider that decision).

The department unquestionably has overlooked minority farmers in the past, giving rise to lawsuits and nearly billion-dollar settlements. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that the USDA today is considered probably the best source of funding for such farmers, according to sources in Yakima Valley's Latino farming community interviewed for SW's cover story last week.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency has a specific loan program targeting "socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers," in fact. "The FSA is the only [lender] that doesn't require a down payment," noted Malaquias 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 and others said.

Among the farmers who got off the ground due to the FSA: Sergio Marquez (pictured above), a Mexican immigrant and former farm worker who initially thought he couldn't take advantage of an offer to buy his boss out, but now runs a nearly 200-acre apple orchard that employs 50.

Luz Gutierrez, who runs a Yakima non-profit that helps Latino farmers and other entrepreneurs called Rural Community Development Resources, also waxed enthusiastic about the FSA program.

In late June, moreover, she persuaded USDA officials, including USDA Undersecretary Ed 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 at least in the Yakima Valley, the USDA does seem to have turned around its reputation as "the last plantation," as Vilsack put it recently.

 
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