Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced new uniform guidelines for conducting USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) County Committee elections.

"These guidelines reflect months of work by USDA and comments by many minority and producer organizations," said Veneman. "These guidelines are intended to make the election process for County Committees more accessible to all producers, especially minorities and women."

Authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, the guidelines are designed to increase the participation of minority and women producers. On Aug. 17, 2004, the USDA published a list of proposed guidelines in the Federal Register for public comment. The proposed guidelines were developed based on input from associations, community groups and leaders, as well as by an inter-agency working group convened by Secretary Veneman. Due to the many public comments received, the comment period was extended until Oct. 16, 2004.

The adopted provisions pertaining to the FSA County Committee election process include:

-Requires that ballots be mailed directly to FSA state offices to apply only at the request of one candidate, or when the Secretary determines that this procedure is necessary in any specific County Committee area. In all other cases, voters will return their ballots to their respective county offices. 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.

-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.

-County Committees will annually review the local administrative area (LAA) boundaries to ensure the fair representation of Socially Disadvantaged Producers (SDA) in the area, with sufficient time allowed for public input of proposed LAA boundary changes prior to FSA State Committee review. In specific instances, FSA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. may conduct further review of LAA boundary changes if further review is sought by either the public or deemed appropriate.

-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.

-Allows for the release of voter names and addresses to candidates. All other eligible voters will only be entitled to review a list of the voter names.

FSA will incorporate the new guidelines into regulations governing County Committee elections. The guidelines represent the USDA's commitment to ensuring that all producers have fair and equal access to all programs. FSA will continue to look for more ways to ensure that County Committees fairly represent producers in covered areas.

Source: USDA Release