Building equity in Georgia agriculture

Rodney Brooks (MS — Agricultural Economics, ’03) is no stranger to agriculture, but a career in the farming industry couldn’t have been further from his mind when he was playing linebacker for the Brooks County High School football team in his hometown of Quitman, Georgia.

While Brooks’ family was not directly involved in agriculture — his mother was a certified nursing assistant — he said, “in a small town everyone knows everyone, so our family had friends who had farms.” Growing up in public housing, Brooks and other young men who lived in his neighborhood would work for a local farmer who picked them up early in the morning before sunrise and drove them to his fields a few miles away, where they would spend long days harvesting tobacco. Brooks also harvested tobacco, peas and watermelons for a friend’s family.

USDA FSA Beginning Farmer Regional Coordinator Rodney Brooks speaks with Jon Jackson, executive director of Comfort Farms, who raises Royal Jabali, a hog breed unique to Georgia on his farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. (Photo by Preston Keres)

Now Brooks is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinator for the East Coast and Southeastern states with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and a member of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) Alumni Board.

He has spent his career with the FSA, beginning as an intern during his freshman year at Fort Valley State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics.

An honorable mention all-state linebacker in his junior year, Brooks was being recruited by a few college teams, but a disastrous senior year on the football field partly as a result of injuries lead to limited opportunities to continue to play football. His options were limited to one partial-tuition offer to play for Presbyterian College in South Carolina or using his Georgia HOPE Scholarship at Fort Valley State University, about two hours north of his hometown. There he earned a Thurgood Marshall Scholarship that covered the remainder of his tuition, which made his decision easier.

It was during his freshman year that Brooks met Mack Nelson, professor of agricultural economics and later dean and research director for the College of Agriculture at FVSU. Under Nelson’s mentorship, Brooks switched his major from business administration.

“As an ag econ major I could still take many of the business courses while getting an education in agriculture, differentiating me from students with general business degrees. The close knit, family-style environment at FVSU enabled me to learn more in small classes and develop close relationships with professors,” Brooks said.

The summer internship in the FSA’s Brooks County office helped Brooks understand how national policy was implemented at the local, field level.

“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. The American Rescue plan takes key steps in assisting marginalized communities through debt relief for socially disadvantaged producers and the creation of a racial equity commission that will address longstanding discrimination across USDA by investing in land access, outreach, education, assistance overcoming barriers to access to USDA programs, business development and more,” said Rodney Brooks (MS — Agricultural Economics, ’03), a member of the CAES Alumni Board.

“It was a great opportunity to see the positive impact FSA had on farmers and ranchers. I returned to work at the FSA county office during my winter holiday break and remaining summers until I graduated,” he said. Nelson encouraged Brooks to apply to graduate school at UGA. A friend who had graduated from FVSU a year earlier had enrolled in graduate school at CAES, so Brooks applied and was accepted.

While earning his master’s degree, Brooks continued to work for the FSA in the administration division of the state office. Although he was only one of few Black students in the graduate program in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, he said faculty and staff were welcoming and his experience was positive.

“Of course, going to UGA, you hear about the stats and the lack of diversity, the small number of African American students. Primarily, if you didn’t play sports and you were Black, you stuck out like a sore thumb. In the back of my mind, I thought about those things, but my goal and objective was too important for this issue to be a distraction. The faculty and staff and the students treated me great — I had an excellent experience,” Brooks said.

After graduate school, Brooks worked as a loan officer with AgGeorgia Farm Credit, then spent several years as a loan officer at FSA’s Dawson Farm Loan office gaining valuable agricultural lending experience. In 2016, he took on his current role as FSA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinator, first for Georgia, then for the East Coast and Southeastern states in 2020.

Inside a high tunnel provided by USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Metro Atlanta Urban Farm (MAUF) CEO Bobby Wilson shows Brooks strawberries he is growing in cloth tubes. Wilson established MAUF in 2009 to address the growing need of affordable food in low-income communities. (Photo by Preston Keres)

In this capacity, he works with producers, with 10 years of experience or less, helping them navigate the complexities of farming and providing them with the information and resources they need to be successful.

“For the history of the U.S., and the history of the USDA, too many Black, Indigenous and POC (people of color) farmers have faced discrimination — sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies and exclusion from federal aid. Today, the USDA is committed to ensuring equity across the department, removing barriers to access and building a diverse workforce,” Brooks said. “We believe that historically disadvantaged groups must be at the heart of these necessary conversations. As the USDA moves forward, we plan to be intentional about centering the voices and experiences of these communities to build equitable systems and processes that result in access to financing.”

While programs to serve socially disadvantaged farmers and their unique needs are not new — many have existed for decades and include provisions for debt relief, land access, credit counseling and more — the USDA understands that much more needs to be done and accomplished to make programming equitable and to root out generations of systemic racism, Brooks said.

“Some farmers of color may have heirs’ property — family land inherited without a will or legal documentation of ownership. The land’s heirs do not own a specific portion or acreage, but they do have an ownership interest based on their relationship to the original landowner.  Because farmers with heirs’ property may not have a clear or marketable title to the property, USDA offers several new options to help them establish a farm number which can give them access to USDA programs,” Brooks said. “Access to land and capital can be challenges for underrepresented producers. Farm loans are an important credit resource. The American Rescue Plan addressed the immediate need for debt relief among those who have been marginalized and are hurting while also advancing long-term issues such as heirs’ property, tackling the root causes of discrimination via an equity commission and investing in building back a new generation of farmers of color.”

Each of FSA’s 2,100 county offices has a designated county outreach coordinator who ensures minority and underserved farmers and ranchers are informed about programs. USDA also funds technical assistance and outreach grants to nonprofit organizations, community-based organizations and universities to assist minority, veteran and beginning farmers in accessing USDA programs. USDA’s Communities of Prosperity Initiative uses faith-based partners across the country to assist the department in supporting economic development and prosperity in rural and underserved communities.

Jones O. Thomas shows Brooks a cotton boll from Rick Davis Farms field outside of Quitman, Georgia. (Photo by Preston Keres)

USDA’s Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Center, located at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, is assembling and collecting feedback and input from socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers across the country to develop farm bill policies that support minority farmers and ranchers. USDA also established advisory committees that give farmers the opportunity to provide suggestions on how programs should be improved to assist their communities. Each state also has a Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinator, like Brooks, who can help new farmers navigate the USDA process. Local USDA Service Centers provide one-on-one assistance with the option of translation services.

While there are many programs in place to help underrepresented members of the agriculture industry, young people considering career paths in agriculture need to be welcomed and supported from primary and secondary schools with programs like FFA and 4-H all the way through the land-grant university system, Brooks said.

“The leadership of these organizations has to take the lead. Working in agriculture, I tell people all the time that, traditionally, diversity is viewed as older white men, younger white men, white women and little bit of everything else. The leadership at institutions like UGA and other large-scale organizations need to make the commitment to racial and ethnic diversity, or it won’t happen,” Brooks said. “We can have talking points and hire diversity, equity and inclusion staff and advisors, but if you are not actually implementing programs to address these issues, nothing will ever change. It is a difficult conversation but, personally, I believe if a conversation is difficult, it definitely needs to be had.”

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