Saturday, August 7, 2010

Department of Fagriculture?

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet in Washington DC with Perry Stevens, the LGBT Special Emphasis Program Manager for the USDA's Natural Conservation Resource Service. After hearing about my project, he got in touch and wanted to pick my brain about my the movie and LGBT farmers. His current work is to make the internal USDA a safe place for LGBT employees through awareness trainings around queer issues. Though it was exciting to meet with him and hear about the work he is doing at the USDA, my main interest in meeting with him was to have a greater understanding of the USDA's relationship and stance on queer farmers. Should we be viewed as a minority population and be eligible for special grants and loans? Is this something queer farmers would even want- government help and recognition? How do USDA employees interact with queer farmers? Have there ever been complaints filed to the USDA from either employees or from farmers on the basis of gender or sexual identity?

The USDA has historically not been a friend to minority farmers, especially farmers of color. For example, see the Pigford Case- a class action suit filed by black farmers that was settled earlier this year for $1.25 billion dollars after black farmers had complained for many years that they were subject to unfair treatment while applying to local county committees for farm loans and assistance. Black farmers were consistently denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer periods of time for approval than non-minority farmers often causing farms to shutdown because of foreclosure or financial disaster.

Considering this horrific historical relationship to minority farmers, I wanted to know what the USDA was going to do to be an ally for queer farmers. Mr. Stevens didn't seem to have too many immediate answers, as his focus is currently on increasing awareness and leading the USDA's employees to create queer friendly workplaces. He mentioned that it would most likely be around 5 years until real the work of outreach and focus on queer friendly customer (farmer) service from the USDA side would happen. In good news, he did mention that to his knowledge, no discrimination cases have ever been filed with the USDA based on issues related to gender identity or sexual orientation.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonah,

    I'm an NRCS employee and I'd like to address the questions that the then national LGBT empasis manager didn't.

    Minority, lower income, and 'new' farmers and ranchers can be a bit harder to work with- the nitty gritty of corporations, land control, leasing, financial paperwork, and the distinct possibility of not getting into a program in any given year all contribute to a really homogeneous customer base. I don't like that. Other NRCS employees don't like that. My office works really hard to make new farmers aware of our programs and walk them through the application and contracting processes. I can only speak for my own.

    The NRCS internally is becoming a more queer-friendly workplace (I started in 2009 and wasn't even slightly out, I even made up a boyfriend once). I'm not sure if even then it was necessary to be so worried, but I'm not privy to the details of anyone's conversations about me or other employees out of my earshot. I was not about to throw caution to the wind on a career I really wanted.

    I don't know if my office serves any LGBT farmers or ranchers, but I know that my supervisor would be more than happy to work with a farmer of non-standard sexuality. I can't say this is true of everyone in my office or everyone in my state. I can only hope.

    I do my job, which includes talking to every person vaguely interested in agriculture about our programs.

    If every queer farmer who reads this blog went into the office that serves their county and just announced their existence and asked about a program, the staff would meet their customers. At the very least, an NRCS employee would realize he/she has someone different to serve; at the very best, you'd meet someone like me and make my entire month just by being in my county.