How to change the USDA: Look beyond the Secretary of Agriculture

By Steph Larsen

In my last post for the Ethicurean, I discussed likely candidates for Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration and encouraged you to voice your support or dislike of the names being floated to Obama’s transition team. You can have an impact: in large numbers, voices of the people are very powerful. Please continue to make your opinions known on the candidates for Secretary of Agriculture under consideration.

(Editor’s note: Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reported yesterday that Tom Vilsack is no longer in the running; in addition to the candidates we listed, Lancaster Farming has said that Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture, who waged a battle against milk labels, has been approached by Obama’s transition team.)

There are hundreds of other positions that are vital to the Department of Agriculture because they run its day-to-day operations and the programs that can advance or deter a sustainable food system. I describe some of these posts below. You can find the full list of USDA positions in this PDF; while this one explains the abbreviations in the list and tells who can be appointed to each post. There are certain positions, for example, that must be filled by USDA staff who have made it through a competitive hiring process.

While the Secretary of Agriculture sets the tone of the entire Department, it is the programs within USDA that can go far to push forward or inhibit sustainability. These programs are run by Administrators, Chiefs, Regional Directors and Deputy Under Secretaries, and mostly answer to Under Secretaries. We need (and can get) awesome people in these positions. Many bloggers and email list-serv members have been suggesting sustainable agriculture leaders as possible Secretaries of Agriculture (see this wiki list or Jill Richardson’s post on La Vida Locavore), and those lists might be a good place to find candidates for one of the positions I outline below, as they have a better chance of being appointed to non-Secretary posts.

If you know people who could be good allies at USDA, direct them to to request an application. Then call your Democratic senators and suggests these people for positions you think they are qualified. Traditionally it is the senators of the President-Elect’s party who help with these choices, partly as a perk to being a member of the party that won and partly because the Senate confirms presidential appointees. If both your senators are Republicans, send suggestions to the most senior House member from your state. (Find your representatives here.) You can suggest more than one name for a slot, and you don’t need to have a name in mind for every position.

This is our best chance to make a difference at USDA.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture

Second in command at the USDA, the Deputy Secretary becomes the Acting Secretary in the event of the Secretary’s resignation, death, or other inability to fulfill the duties of the position. The Deputy’s duties are assigned by the Secretary.

Natural Resources and Environment

The Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment oversee programs critical to sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. Under their control is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Among the programs NRCS oversees is the innovative Conservation Stewardship Program, which uses “green payments” to support farmers who protect the environment while also growing food. The agency also administers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a program that can do a lot of good when directed at worthy projects, but which more recently has become known for sending big checks to big livestock facilities.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, Chief of the NRCS, and three regional NRCS chiefs.

Rural Development

The Under Secretary for Rural Development and his or her two deputies oversee a diverse set of programs, including those dealing with rural utilities, housing programs and cooperative development. The agency is in charge of the well-known Value Added Producer Grant program and the new Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

The economy and communities of rural America have interests much broader than agriculture alone, and while it looks like urban advocates will get an Office of Urban Policy in the new Administration, rural advocates need to stake a broader claim within USDA. With good people in rural development positions, we can do just that.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary; two Deputy Under Secretaries; program administrators for utilities, housing and cooperative services; and 45 state directors of rural development.

Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services

The Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services are in charge of the nutrition and food security programs at USDA, including Women, Infants and Children (WIC), school meals, the program formerly known as Food Stamps and other feeding programs. With consumer trends toward healthy eating and local foods, allies in these positions can move us closer to a more just and sustainable food system by using food programs to establish healthy food access for all.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service, and seven regional administrators.

Research, Education, and Economics

Impartial research and statistics are necessary to further develop and show the merits of a sustainable agriculture and food system, and using public funds for this work — instead of corporate donations — help keep it unbiased. The Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics provide funding and leadership to land-grant universities and administer competitive grants like the popular Community Food Projects, as well as several programs that support organic research, transition, and production. This branch of USDA will be restructured soon as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill, and allies appointed beforehand will insure that the new division will give more legitimacy to sustainable production systems.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, and Administrator of Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services

The Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services oversee the cash cow of agriculture spending. Within this division is the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which distributes credit, conservation, disaster, and loan programs as well as agricultural commodity payments. The Risk Management Agency also helps farmers mitigate risks through effective marketing and insurance programs. The voices of reform and equality have gotten ever louder, and allies here could shift the balance away from corporate and industrial agriculture.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, three agency administrators, and 51 state executive directors of FSA.

Marketing and Regulatory Programs

The Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs have a diverse set of responsibilities, from insuring robust agricultural competition to providing opportunities to sell products in the U.S. and abroad. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) is responsible for insuring that livestock producers are treated equally regardless of their size and that corporations do not engage in unfair competitive practices. Strong leaders here could especially support small and mid-size family farmers.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service, and Administrator of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.

Food Safety

The Under Secretary for Food Safety and the Deputy Under Secretary oversee inspection of the meat, eggs, and poultry that are produced in the U.S. Recently — and infamously — underfunded, this division has left hundreds of inspection positions vacant, forcing the closure and consolidation of independent slaughter facilities. Small-scale livestock producers would be better served if allies in these positions can insure that all slaughterhouses who want to sell across state lines have a USDA inspector available.

Positions to fill: Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary.

Steph Larsen is currently the Rural Policy Organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs in northeast Nebraska, before which she spent three years in Washington, D.C. working with Community Food Security Coalition. She holds an MS in geography from her home state of Wisconsin.

12 Responsesto “How to change the USDA: Look beyond the Secretary of Agriculture”

  1. Steph- thanks again for writing this.  Just today a bunch of us in California had a conference call to develop nominees for the California state directors of FSA and Rural Development.  We heard these are the only two positions at the state level that are political appointees and that they don’t have to come from within USDA.  Is that true?  Also, what is the vetting process?  Should we send the list of nominees (after we confirm which of them is willing to take the thankless jobs) to our senators, representatives, to the Obama admin, or to folks within the state?

  2. Steph Larsen says:

    Nice work! You’re right that FSA and Rural Development have state-level appointed positions, and I looked on the list linked above – they do not have to come from within USDA. There is also a Regional Administrator for Food and Nutrition Service in San Francisco that you may want to suggest someone for.
    And I’d say send your suggestions to your senior Senator (in your case Sen. Feinstein) through someone you know has a good relationship with her and to the Obama administration through people you have contact with on the transition team. If you think there are also people on the state level who have sway on this decision, send it there way too. And definitely make sure your suggestions submit an application through…everyone on the transition team says that they must receive resumes through there.

  3. Eric Olson says:

    Slightly off-topic, but Mark Rey in the Natural Resources & Environment section has been the champion of “Healthy Forests” and other misnamed misdeeds; the Forest Service is a huge responsibility and I look forward to a whole lot of Change in that arena.

  4. Steph Larsen says:

    Good point, Eric. I didn’t include Forest Service in this discussion due to space contraints, but they’re important too. Please note that all Forest Service appointees are part of the category that had to be hired in USDA through a competitive process. In other words, they have to already be employees of USDA.

  5. Many thanks. I am in the early stages of putting together a project to post background explanations about subcabinet positions on Daily Kos as people are nominated to fill them. This sort of thing is hugely helpful to my research.

  6. Doug Vincent says:

    Steph – great post but I think that some of the positions to be filled are not necessarily political appointees.  At lower levels, beneath undersecretaries and their deputies are professional positions in USDA.  For example, I’ve been told that the Director of Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) is a professional appointment.  They may have to submit courtesy resignations but they don’t have to be replaced. 

  7. According to the Plum Book, the presidential appointees in USDA number only 16: Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Undersecretary for Marketing and Development Programs, Undersecretary for Rural Development, Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics, Undersecretary for Food Safety,  General Counsel, Assistant Secretary for Administration, Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Chief Financial Officer, Inspector General, and the Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service. (I give the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in their official order of emergency succession — seniority, in a sense — as designated in Executive Order 13241.) Of course, there are plenty of lower-ranking noncompetitive and Schedule C positions that are nonpresidential political appointments, as discussed above.

  8. Steph Larsen says:

    Aren’t bureaucracies horribly confusing?

    There are several different kinds of political appointees. The 16 that Bear lists above are presidential appointments with Senate confirmation, but that’s only one kind of political appointment. Some of them require that an individual to go through a competitive hiring process at some point, this is where the CSREES Administrator falls.
    If a new administration doesn’t like the current CSREES Administrator, for example, they can pick someone else within CSREES to lead it, and the former administrator is reassigned.
    Some helpful websites to try to weed through that mess are here, here, and here.

    The Washington Post has a few articles (here and here) that explain what the “plum book” is.

    One of the more sneaky things that Bush has done is transfer political appointees to permanent non-political jobs within an agency. Huffington Post reports on that here.

  9. policyhog says:

    FCEA 2008 (aka the farm bill) changed CSREES to a new Agriculture and Food Research Institute (AFRI) and made the Institute’s Director a subcabinet (political) appointee, answering to the Undersectary for Research.  This new position will have a lot of influence in a few years on the future of U.S. food and ag science and technology. 

  10. policyhog says:

    Correction: the new polticical position within USDA-REE is the Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  NIFA is supposed to overarch and coordinate both USDA’s competitive research and extension programs (including AFRI, nee CSREES) and the in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service.  Sorry for adding to the confusion.

  11. andy says:

    This is a terrific outline and tremendously helpful, Steph. Thanks so much for putting this together. I’m obviously late on reading it but I find it to be mighty helpful. I’m passing on to others who will find this quite useful now, too.

  12. vaguy says:

    Steph, thanks for the good overview of the Department.  Like you, I’m hoping for good leadership at all levels of USDA.   Just a couple of points to add:  Within USDA, Under Secretaries head “mission areas”.  We also use the title Under Secretary rather than Undersecretary.  There are two Deputy Under Secretaries in the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services mission area.  One has primary responsibility for domestic programs (through the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency), and the other has primary responsibility for the Department’s international trade and development programs (through the Foreign Agricultural Service).  
    USDA does have a Council on Sustainable Development, which is housed under the Office of the Secretary/Office of the Chief Economist.  This council has wide representation from the various agencies of the Department, and it focuses mainly on programmatic and policy issues.  So far it has not waded into the political arena.