The acronyms are always hard. Connie Conway had to learn the policy terms as a Tulare County supervisor and then more as an assemblymember. In her first month as a “federale,” she has been deluged with acronyms.
Conway heads the California branch of the USDA Farm Service Agency, a political appointment by President Donald Trump. Having lived in Bakersfield, Tulare and Fresno, the role is a continuation of her deep relationship with California farming and ranching.
“You can't avoid agriculture – even if you wanted to – if you’ve lived where I live,” she said.
In the Assembly, Conway represented the San Joaquin Valley for six years. At the FSA, she replaces Aubrey Bettencourt, the former head of the California Water Alliance. California Representative Devon Nunes has held the position as well.
Conway spoke with Agri-Pulse recently about the latest rollout of the Market Facilitation Program payments, about the regulatory push towards consolidation and about her first month in the role.
- How has your background at the Legislature prepared you for this position?
Agricultural is often the victim of legislative malfeasance. They'll say they're just trying to do the right things for the right people. But sometimes the legislation does harm to the very people they say they're trying to help.
This move for me is an exciting one. I see it as a way to give back to all of those who have supported me in the past and to be able to serve agriculture in a different role that combines both policy and action.
Our goal is to keep farmers farming. But I've noticed that as I’ve gone around to visit some of the offices, a lot of the workers for this agency have little signs up in their cubbies that say, “Do right and feed everyone.” I like that.
- What are your priorities for the role?
The agency mostly reacts to the Farm Bill, which usually happens every five years. But with tariff issues, we’re now putting out programs to help the farmers that might be impacted by those trade issues. And for the first time, we're helping some farmers with different agricultural products than we have in the past.
- In the Assembly, you voted against the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. How does your role now intersect with water issues?
One of the things that's always a mystery to me when you're talking about water is that there's a segment of the population that does not like above-ground storage. But in order to replenish the aquifer that gets used, if you don't have water to put in it, you can't refurbish it.
To watch wonderful water – a gift from heaven in our snowpack – roll out to the sea, with no benefit – not only to agriculture, but to cities and counties and disadvantaged communities – to me, that's a sin. There is enough water if we were just able to capture it and do the right thing.
Any problem can be solved, if you're dealing with people that sincerely want to solve the problem. So, I come with a degree of skepticism because of my experience as an elected official.
I had a dear friend of mine tell me one time, “You know, Connie, you live your life by a set of morals and guidelines, and you blindly assume that the rest of the world shares them. Well, I'm here to tell you they don't.”
- How have agricultural policies changed over your time in elected offices?
In my time in the legislature, it was death by a thousand paper cuts. It's this little regulation here, and that little regulation over there. It seems almost like a cohesive effort to eliminate agricultural businesses in California.
What used to sadden me the most was that some of the people who come up with these great ideas have never even been to a farming operation.
As we roll out some of these tariff programs, even from a year ago, many of the dairies are gone.
I used to hear a lot of my colleagues on the far left in Sacramento talk about factory farms and corporate farming. One day, I was pretty upset about that and I said to the assemblymember, “With all due respect, I'm not sure you've been to an agricultural area to actually see it. It's the business my son is in. He works side-by-side with his employees every day, sometimes multi-generational employees. They all care about what they're doing and they all care about each other.”
The reason some of these farms have grown in size is because the grandfather dairies, for example, cannot exist with the current rules and regulations. It’s economy of scale and a small operation can't make it. You put in a rule that says for every animal unit, you have to have an acre of land. The small guy can't afford that and that's how these operations grow.
I think they'd like to turn part of the agricultural areas in the state of California back to wild lands.
- What are your initial thoughts from your first month in the role as director?
While I was aware of the agency before, I did not understand the depth of the programs. I was not fully aware of the programs that help new or beginning farmers. And there's programs to help youth interested in farming, and veterans and socially disadvantaged folks like the Hmong farmers. There's just a variety of things that are involved in it. It's really interesting and I've been working long, hard hours.
- The Market Facilitation Program is new to a lot of farmers, especially in California. How has the rollout been so far?
I can tell you we're working very hard and doing tremendous outreach.
There's a program for raisins and there's a program for table grapes. We've never done that before. Cherries are part of the program. One of the hardest things about this is that farmers are humble, hard-working people, and they don't always want to sign up for government programs. We have to go out and find them.
I haven't had any of them tell me they're mad at the president. They say it's a problem that needs to be solved and they are willing to hang in there. They are taking a hit, many of them, but they're such resilient people. Farmers are the salt of the earth. It's warmed my heart in many ways to see exactly how much they are willing to take.