WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has proposed new guidelines to ensure that Farm Service Agency county committees fairly represent agricultural producers, especially minorities and women.

"These guidelines better define the county committee election process," said Veneman. "The proposed reforms will help encourage participation by minority and under-represented producers on county committees."

The 2002 farm bill gave the secretary of agriculture authority to issue uniform guidelines governing the county committee election process.

The proposed guidelines were prepared with advice from community groups and leaders, as well as by an inter-agency working group convened by the secretary. Adopting the definition set forth in 7 U.S.C. --2003, the 2002 farm bill defines socially disadvantaged (SDA) producers as a group whose members have been subject to racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice because of their identity as members of the group, without regard to their individual qualities.

The law states that SDA producers have generally been defined to include: African-Americans; Hispanic Americans; Native Americans; Asian-Pacific Americans; Subcontinent Asian-Americans; and women. By statute, USDA must solicit nominations for county committee positions from organizations representing the interests of SDA groups.

The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed guidelines published in the Aug. 17 Federal Register. The guidelines will not become final until USDA has received and considered public comments.

Among the proposed provisions, the secretary may nominate to a slate regardless of whether any nominations have been filed. Currently, one or more SDA producers may be appointed to be an advisor to a County Committee; however, these advisors have no voting authority. A nomination by the Secretary may include the current advisor.

After evaluating whether the proposed reforms in these guidelines result in an increase in minority and under-served producers on county committees, the secretary may exercise her authority to appoint SDA producers to county committees. Before exercising this authority, USDA will seek additional public comments on proposed provisions under which such appointments would be made.

The proposed reforms to the FSA county committee election process include:

  • If no valid nominations are filed, the secretary may nominate up to two individuals to be placed on the ballot. If the Secretary does not exercise this authority, then the state committee may nominate up to two individuals to be placed on the ballot. If neither the secretary nor the state committee chooses to exercise their authority, then the respective county committee shall nominate two individuals to be placed on the ballot.
  • FSA county offices shall actively locate and recruit eligible candidates identified as SDA farmers and ranchers as potential nominees for the county committee elections using any reasonable means necessary, including the development of partnerships with community based organizations.
  • County committees will annually review the local administrative area boundaries to ensure the fair representation of SDA producers in the area.
  • The number of consecutive three-year terms that a county committee member may serve will be reduced from three to two. This provision becomes effective with the 2005 election.
  • In counties selected for further election monitoring, the FSA state office will receive all ballots and deliver them in a sealed box to the respective county offices at the time appointed for tabulation. Ballot opening and counting will be fully open and accessible to the public, with 10 days advance notice of the date and time of the vote tabulation.
FSA county committees help ensure that federal programs meet the needs of producers in their communities. Committees make decisions on commodity price support loans and payments; establishment of allotments and yields; conservation programs; incentive, indemnity and disaster payments for some commodities; and other farm disaster assistance.

Individuals may nominate themselves or others as candidates for seats on county committees. In addition, eligible candidates can be nominated by any community-based, faith-based or other organizations in the county or area during the nomination period.

Groups representing SDA producers will be encouraged to nominate eligible individuals. Nominations and elections are open to all eligible candidates and voters without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, marital status or disability. Eligibility for voting is open to all who demonstrate participation or cooperation in FSA programs and who register at their local FSA Service Center.

Veneman also announced the implementation of a communications effort to encourage under-represented groups to nominate candidates to serve on the committees. Veneman sent letters to the leaders of some 2,000 national and regional groups and community-based organizations representing socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers to encourage their participation in county elections.

Additional actions USDA is taking to encourage SDA producers to participate in the FSA county committee elections include:

  • Focusing communications activities in 300 target counties that have significant numbers of socially disadvantaged producers.
  • Using media outlets that serve SDA producers to spread the word about county committee elections.
  • Publishing a new brochure, "FSA County Committees," which is being distributed to producers across the country.
Secretary Veneman is also sending letters to minority advisors on FSA county committees encouraging them to nominate themselves as candidates.

The nomination period for the 2004 elections closes Sept. 3, 2004. Nomination forms (FSA-669A) can be obtained from local FSA Service Center offices or online at http://forms.sc.egov.usda.gov/eforms/mainservlet. Producers can expect to receive their ballots during the week of Nov. 7, 2004 and must mail in or return their ballots to their local FSA office by Dec. 6, 2004.

Details on FSA county committee elections and the Federal Register proposal can be found on the web at: www.fsa.usda.gov.

All comments received by Sept. 16, 2004 will be considered. Comments should be submitted to: County Committee Election Reform Comments, Department of Agriculture, Room 3092-S, Mail Stop 0539, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-0539 or by email to: countyelectionguidelines@usda.gov.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com