Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that relatively low salaries are making it difficult for USDA to retain employees, including Farm Service Agency field staff.

During his second appearance on Capitol Hill in as many days, Vilsack also told the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee the salary issue was also a problem for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service when it came to keeping veterinarians from jumping to the private sector.

The veterinarians APHIS hires “do an amazing job for a year or two, and then someone basically says to them, ‘Hey, in the private sector, you can make $10, $20, $25,000, $50,000 more. Why don't you come over to private practice?‘’’ Vilsack told Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. 

“We can get them in the door. We just are having a hard time keeping them,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack told Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that USDA was trying to convince the Office of Personnel Management to reclassify some positions, which would allow salaries to be increased.

“It's an issue across all of our mission areas, and it is in part a result of the overall federal (salary) system that's in place,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack indicated it was particularly difficult for FSA to retain loan officers, who frequently leave for private sector jobs once they get trained, he said.

An FSA position “used to be the best job you could get in a small town,” Vilsack told reporters after the hearing. “Today, that’s not the case,” 

Vilsack also told Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the full Appropriations Committee, that staff morale in the Natural Resources Conservation Service was “incredibly low” when he returned to USDA as secretary in 2021 after being away from the department during the Trump administration.

Despite the challenges Vilsack says he has in retaining workers, the UDSA staff is still growing, according to a summary of the White House’s fiscal 2024 budget request for USDA. The department has an estimated 97,592 full-time equivalent employees in FY23, up from 91,191 in FY22, and the FY24 budget request calls for the workforce to grow to 107,796. The 2024 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

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However, during this month's Commodity Classic, NRCS Chief Terry Cosby said his agency hired 800 new employees last year, but only 500 stayed on the job. NRCS had direct hiring authority to bring in about 1,500 new employees. In the coming years, Cosby said NRCS needs to hire as many as 3,000 more employees.

Also during the Senate hearing, Vilsack said the establishment of a new cattle contract library at USDA has already started to change contracting practices in the industry. Under the pilot program finalized in December, packers are required to provide contract information and the number of cattle purchased.

“Our team believes by virtue of what we knew before … that adjustments have already been made to some contracts in a positive way for producers,” Vilsack told Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “So, I think the transparency, the sunlight, is an incredibly important tool.”

Vilsack, who testified before the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, is scheduled to appear before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday.

Lydia Johnson contributed to this report.

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