Black farmers unconvinced by Vilsack's 'root out' racism vow

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HOLD FOR STORY BY ROXANA HEGEMAN - FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2020, file photo former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who the Biden administration chose to reprise that role, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. Joe Biden's nomination of Vilsack to lead the Agriculture Department is getting a chilly reaction from many Black farmers who contend he didn't do enough to help them the last time he had the job. The former Iowa governor served eight years as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. – President Joe Biden's nomination of Tom Vilsack to lead the Agriculture Department received a chilly reaction from many Black farmers who contend he didn't do enough to help them the last time he had the job.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who served eight years as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, has been trying to assure minority farming groups and the senators who will vote on his confirmation that he will work to "root out generations of systemic racism” in the agency.

“The reality is there are inherent, legacy barriers and practices that have prevented black farmers and other producers from getting access to programs, and I will do everything I can to remove those barriers," Vilsack said in an email to The Associated Press.

John Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer who is president of the National Black Farmers Association, has voiced his concerns during several conversations with the nominee.

“I told him he had to do better this time,” Boyd said.

Some Black farmers fault Vilsack for failing to adequately address a backlog of discrimination complaints that predated his arrival at the department in 2009, and they say he should have hired more minorities to high-level positions.

There's also lingering bitterness about Vilsack's treatment of Shirley Sherrod, a Black woman who served as USDA's Georgia director of rural development. Vilsack fired her in 2010 after a conservative blogger posted an edited video of her supposedly making racist remarks, but he asked her to return when the full video surfaced showing that she was taken out of context. Sherrod declined the offer to come back.

“We have already seen what Vilsack is going to do. We don’t have a prayer if he gets in there,” said Rod Bradshaw, a 67-year-old Black farmer who raises wheat, cattle and milo on 2,000 acres near Jetmore, Kansas.