Careers in Agriculture

Bountiful Careers in Agriculture

Cinnamon Butler, adjudicator for USDA

As an adjudicator in the USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Cinnamon Butler makes sure that USDA loans, programs, and services are provided based on the merits of a business decision and not on factors that could be discriminatory, such as race, sex, age, or religion. She then writes a decision that determines if damages should be awarded, compliance reviews required, or training in civil rights conducted.

Among other things, she evaluates whether discrimination has occurred with USDA-funded rural housing for the elderly or disabled. “Sometimes state, local, and federal monies aren’t geared toward people who need it,” says Butler, who in college became a member of Alpha Zeta, the national scholastic fraternity for agriculture students and professionals.

While Butler was attending the University of Kentucky in 1998, a landmark class action lawsuit known as Pigford v. Glickman was on the verge of being filed against the USDA. It alleged that black farmers had been discriminated against in the allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1993 and 1997.

Butler, who was elected president of the school’s MANRRS chapter, and who won a national MANRRS public speaking contest, gave a speech on the Pigford settlement for a class. The suit hit home with her because she was raised on a 400-acre family farm in western Kentucky in an area called Butlertown–named after her relatives. Some of her relatives joined the lawsuit and eventually received a $50,000 settlement. But Butler knew of families who didn’t.  Although she didn’t realize it at the time, the topic set her on the path to champion small farmers and underrepresented agriculture workers.

After graduating with a degree in animal science, she took a job as a plant management trainee at Perdue Farms and supervised approximately 50 people, mostly Latinos and Bosnian refugees who spoke little English.

She developed a rapport with them and they turned to her for solutions to work-related problems. “I thought if I can do that in this capacity, I can do an even better job in a legal capacity,” Butler recalls. Not long afterward, she entered law school. Her last year in law school was paid for by a fellowship from the American Association of University Women, which supported her pursuit of a career in agricultural law, a field typically dominated by men.

Butler worked in the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy, where entrepreneurs and small farmers apply for loans to develop agriculture products. The next summer she served in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in the legal counsel department. But before acquiring her dream job at the USDA, Butler was advised to get litigation experience in the courtroom. She says her courtroom experience was invaluable, but that her animal science experience is also useful because it helps her to understand the day-to-day operations, yields, and expenses, and the legal implications of running a farm of limited resources.