WASHINGTON, May 11, 2017 – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced today a long-awaited plan to reorganize the USDA and its seven mission areas that are staffed with nearly 100,000 employees in thousands of offices across the country and the world.
At the heart of the plan is the creation of a new under secretary position that is focused solely on trade, but Perdue is also putting forward a controversial proposal to do away with the subcabinet position for Rural Development.
Perdue has said repeatedly he supports the creation of a new under secretary position for trade, and today he made that official, splitting up the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service that houses the Foreign Agriculture Service, the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency.
“Our plan to establish an undersecretary for trade fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world,” Perdue said in the release. “By working side by side with our U.S. Trade Representative and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the USDA Under Secretary for Trade will ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world.”
The Senate this afternoon easily confirmed Robert Lighthizer as USTR, 82-14.
The new Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs mission area will essentially contain only the Foreign Agriculture Service, according to a chart and description of the plan sent to Congress. A separate Farm Production and Conservation under secretary will oversee the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is being removed from the Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) mission area. That leaves NRE with only the U.S. Forest Service.
“The men and women of American agriculture are hardy people, many of whom were born into the calling of feeding America and the world,” Perdue said. “Their efforts are appreciated, and this adjustment to the USDA structure will help us help them in even better ways than before.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, said he was pleased to see NRCS included under the purview of the proposed Farm Production and Conservation under secretary position.
“Secretary Perdue’s reorganization recognizes the importance of USDA programs in rural America,” Aderholt said. “Conserving land for future generations and providing a safety net for our farmers, producers, and ranchers will now be under one roof.”
Perdue formally announced the reorganization plan this afernoon in Cincinnati.
“The establishment of a trade undersecretary is long overdue,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts. “We need to get the right folks down at the Department to get to work on the issues that matter most to farmers. Trade is certainly at the top of that list.”
The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) said it was especially pleased with Perdue’s plan.
“NAWG applauds the USDA for emphasizing the importance of trade by creating a specific mission area devoted to the Department’s trade programs,” said David Schemm, the group’s president. “This move highlights the significance that programs like the Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) program play in promoting wheat and other ag commodities all over the world.”
But some lawmakers and agriculture groups are concerned about the impact of the reorganization on rural development operations at USDA.
“We want to make sure there continues to be a strong emphasis on rural development,” said North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “We’re still looking at that piece ... We want to make sure there is enough emphasis on rural development.”
The USDA plan benefits Rural Development operations, Perdue said, because it elevates the status of the Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service and the Rural Business by giving them the authority to report directly to the secretary of agriculture.
But the under secretary position for Rural Development would be done away with under the reorganization and that is troubling to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).
“While the administration has attempted to spin the demotion of Rural Develop as an ‘elevation’ – arguing that because the office would report directly to the secretary, rural development needs will receive greater attention – it is in fact a trading away of rural, domestic priorities in favor of boosting international trade,” the group said. “By demoting Rural Development to simply an ‘office’ under the Secretary, it will lose its Cabinet-level status and the decision-making power that comes with being categorized as a USDA mission area.”
More concern came from Senate Agriculture Committee ranking minority member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. She said she is "really glad (Perdue) is moving ahead with the under secretary of trade" position authorized in the 2014 farm bill, but added she wants to ensure that the Rural Development program is not shortchanged.
"This is such a critical agency," she told Agri-Pulse. "I know (Perdue's) committed to Rural Development, but I think he’s going to have to work very hard so people will feel comfortable that, in fact, it will continue to be a huge priority in the department."
Perdue stressed that rural development activities would remain a priority,
“The economic health of small towns across America is crucial to the future of the agriculture economy. It is my commitment to always argue for the needs of rural America, which is why we are elevating Rural Development within USDA,” said Perdue. “No doubt, the opportunity we have here at the USDA in rural development is unmatched.”
Meanwhile, staff at the USDA’s Rural Development agency received a memo today, assuring them that the reorganization is a positive development.
“The change will provide additional visibility and support for our mission,” staff were told in the memo from USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Roger Glendenning. “The realignment will not change the work done by employees, or how it is done. Business will continue as usual and you will report to your existing management structure. We are working closely with the Secretary's office to ensure that this transition is smooth and transparent. USDA will provide more details regarding the plan within the coming days.”
USDA said earlier in its announcement that a “reduction in USDA workforce is not part of the reorganization.”
(This story was updated at 2:55 p.m. to include Senate confirmation of Robert Lighthizer as USTR.)
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