BATON ROUGE, La.. — Southern University is leading the way in research and development programs propelling the U.S. agricultural economy forward, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during his visit to Southern's campus on Tuesday. Vilsack, accompanied by Isabella Casillas Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited the university to promote federal programs to advance economic equity in underserved areas. Congressman Troy Carter, whose sprawling district covers the university, and Southern President-Chancellor Dennis Shields helped organize the trip.
Vilsack and Guzman had a campus tour and interacted with students, faculty, and small business leaders to discuss their ideas and initiatives. Following their visit, Vilsack, Guzman, and Carter joined Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards at Southern's Donald C. Wade House for a news conference to discuss the federal programs. Vilsack praised Louisiana for taking part in the USDA's Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which finances research and production initiatives that minimize the agricultural and environmental impact.
Louisiana is part of 19 projects funded by the $3.1 billion federal program, including two involving Southern University, Vilsack said. Southern is participating in a $90 million effort to reduce methane emissions and water consumption by rice farms and a $20 million "industrial hemp" initiative that will develop and market hemp as a "high-efficiency carbon sequestration and a climate-smart commodity crop." Vilsack also highlighted Southern's cafeteria program that uses beef from cattle grown on campus.
During the news conference, Guzman and Vilsack underscored the need to extend capital access programs to underserved entrepreneurs and farmers. Guzman said the SBA usually spends more than $50 billion yearly to support small businesses, of which about $300 million goes to Louisiana entrepreneurs. She noted a surge in small business applications nationwide over the last few years, including 180,000 in Louisiana alone.
"We want to see more of that funding go to all of our diverse and small businesses across the state so that they can deliver … for their communities," she said. Guzman added that they have networks across the country, including at Southern University, to help entrepreneurs figure out how to pursue contracts and funding to expand their businesses.
After the news conference, Guzman and Congressman Carter held other town hall meetings across the region to hear from small business owners on how they could better serve them. Peter Williams, a tree farmer from Lettsworth in Pointe Coupee Parish, questioned Vilsack on a $2.2 billion provision of the Inflation Reduction Act that aids farmers who have previously faced discrimination when trying to pursue USDA loans.
Vilsack said Congress set the $500,000 cap, but the federal funding programs aim to keep farmers on their land instead of forcing them into foreclosure. He added that the USDA has diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts underway at all regional offices to address capital access needs. "We're very serious about this. We're very intent on making it happen," Vilsack said. "Frankly, it's in the long-term best interest of the department to do this."