How to change USDA with sustainable agriculture allies
In a recent post, 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.
(Note: Since the original post, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reported yesterday that Tom Vilsack is no longer in the running; in addition to the candidates 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.)
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 they 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 this 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.
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. You can find the full list of USDA positions here [PDF]; while this one [PDF] 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.
If you know people who could be good allies at USDA, direct them to Change.gov 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. 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.