BCN Staff – April 26, 2021 — The Biden administration on Friday tabbed Little Rock native Karama Neal to lead one of the top programs within the U.S., Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) federal Rural Development agency.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, which was confirmed by Congress on Feb. 23, on Friday announced Neal as Administrator for the Rural Business-Cooperative Service. USDA’s Rural Development runs three programs intended to improve the economy and quality of life in rural America.
In leading the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, Neal’s will oversee programs to help businesses grow as well as job training for people living in rural areas. The USDA Rural Development group, which operates with a $225 billion loan portfolio and has offices in every state, also houses Rural Housing Services and Rural Utilities.
Before her USDA appointment, Neal most recently served as president of Southern Bancorp Community Partners (SBCP), a $32 million nonprofit community development loan fund and financial development organization promoting economic mobility in rural Arkansas and Mississippi. SBCP is an affiliate of Southern Bancorp, one of the nation’s largest Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) with nearly $2 billion in total assets.
Collectively known as Southern, the Little Rock-based CDFI includes Southern Bancorp Inc., a bank holding company; Southern Bancorp Bank, one of America’s largest rural development banks; and SBCP. Before joining Southern, Neal had a career in the biosciences and worked for a period in biofuels informatics with a focus on feedstocks and balancing food and fuel priorities. In 2013, inspired by her family’s ownership of rural heirs’ property in Arkansas, she started a statewide grassroots organization promoting passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act which was passed in 2015.
Neal holds an undergraduate degree in biology from Swarthmore College, a doctorate in genetics from Emory University and a master’s in bioethics and health policy from Loyola University Chicago. among the cadre of individuals who will hold senior positions in the department, which is made up of 29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad.
Neal’s new role is significant as President Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes a $5 billion set aside that will repay generations of socially disadvantaged farmers that have struggled to succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt, most of which are Black.
Under the Biden rescue plan, $4 billion will go toward emergency relief to pay off years of debt that have prevented many farmers of color from making a living or taking advantage of opportunities to grow or explore new crop techniques.
Another $1 billion in funding will go to the USDA to create a racial equity commission and address longstanding discrimination across the federal agency. Those funds will also be used to invest in land access, outreach, education, business development, and assistance in overcoming barriers to access to USDA programs, and more.
Many Black farms have complained for years that USDA policies have caused their demise, including protesting Biden’s nomination of Vilsack who previously served as Secretary of Agriculture under former President Barack Obama.
In 2012, the number of black farmers in the U.S. was 44,629. This was a 12% increase from the last agriculture census conducted, USDA data shows. Nationally, Black farmers were 1.4% of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. Ninety percent lived in twelve southern states, including Arkansas.
Today, agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry, adding around $16 billion to the state’s economy annually, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Arkansas is a major exporter of rice, soybeans, cotton, poultry and feed grains with 49,346 farms statewide, including about 1,250 operated by Black farmers.
Of total black farmers, 33,371 were principal operators, which means they oversaw the farm’s day-to-day operations. Farms with black principal operators increased 9% between 2007 and 2012, selling $846 million in agricultural products and operated 3.6 million acres of farmland, according to USDA statistics. Of the more than 50,525 farms in operation across Arkansas in 1982, their farm was one of 1,250 operated by black farmers
Besides Neal’s new role, Vilsack also made these other senior positions with the USDA:
· Mike Schmidt was named Senior Advisor in the Office of the Secretary. Previously, Schmidt served as Senior Advisor for USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area since January 20, 2021. Senior Professional Staff for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry under ranking member Senator Debbie Stabenow. Schmidt held several positions at USDA in the Obama Administration, including Associate Administrator for Policy and Programs in the Farm Service Agency. At USDA, Schmidt was also responsible for implementation of 2014 Farm Bill programs related to commodities, dairy, conservation, and risk protection. Schmidt is a graduate of Virginia Tech and has a master’s degree from the University College London.
· Lisa Ramirez, EdD was named Director of the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement. She most recently served as the Chief Innovation Officer for the Lubbock Independent School District in Lubbock, Texas. Previously, she held the roles of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs and Director of the Office of Migrant Education and the Director for the Office of School Support and Rural Programs in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Ramirez served in the U.S. Army Reserves and holds a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a Doctor of Education degree from Texas Tech University.
· Doug McKalip was named Senior Advisor in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently, McKalip was Senior Advisor in Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). He previously served as Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs at the White House Domestic Policy Council and held several positions at USDA, including Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Director of Legislative and Public Affairs in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). McKalip received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and his master’s in public policy from American University. He is a native of rural, Northwest Pennsylvania.
“Karama, Mike, Lisa and Doug will play an integral role in our mission to create a department that represents and serves all Americans, addresses the climate crisis, builds new and fair markets for American producers, and rebuilds rural America,” said Vilsack.
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