Perdue unveils plan to reorganize USDA’s rural, farm and trade wings

Two weeks into the job, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed today the first reorganization of USDA since 1994, a rapid start to President Trump’s instructions to the cabinet to increase federal efficiency. The Perdue package creates a new position, undersecretary for trade; abolishes the undersecretary for rural development so Perdue would directly oversee economic development programs; and puts one undersecretary in charge of farm subsidies and land stewardship, responsibilities now split between two undersecretaries.

“These steps are the down payment on improving the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the department,” said USDA in a report to lawmakers. “Over the next several months, we will be working with Congress, our stakeholders and our employees to listen to ideas about how to make the department even more responsive to to needs of our customers.”

Perdue was obliged under the 2014 farm law to create the post of undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. His package is more comprehensive by reconfiguring three of USDA’s seven operating wings responsible for two-thirds of its workforce. The plan changes jurisdiction over agencies and, by some standards, diminishes the power of the No. 3 USDA official, who now oversees the farm program and agricultural trade.

The plan was sent to Congress this morning. Perdue is to unveil it personally this afternoon on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati with a backdrop of barges that haul agricultural products. The new office of undersecretary for trade will be the lead item. The event will underscore Perdue’s commitment to exports as a way to generate income for farmers. Commodity prices and farm income are in a trough following the collapse of the agricultural boom in 2013.

“Our people in American agriculture have shown they can grow it and we’re here to sell it in markets all around the world,” Perdue said in a statement released ahead of the appearance.

In the report to Congress, USDA said it was formally notifying Congress that it would exercise power in the 2014 farm law to reorganize its structure to accommodate the new undersecretary. The plan would be implemented “once consultations with the (Agriculture) committees are completed,” said USDA.

There would be no reduction in USDA’s workforce as part of the reorganization, according to the report.

Under the proposal, the undersecretary for trade would be in charge of the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) with its worldwide network of agricultural attaches and would be the USDA leader on trade policy. The undersecretary, who must be confirmed by the Senate, would chair a committee of agencies with duties that involve exports and imports, such as the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

A new undersecretary slot, for farm production and conservation, would have jurisdiction over the Farm Services Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). The post would replace the undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, who now oversees FSA, FAS and RMA, in charge of crop insurance. It would unite USDA conservation programs in one place. At present, FSA runs the Conservation Reserve, the largest U.S. land-idling program, while NRCS is in charge of soil, water and wildlife stewardship on working lands.

The portfolio of the undersecretary for natural resources would be limited to the Forest Service, its 32,000 employees and its 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. The undersecretary also has charge of NRCS at present.

With abolition of the undersecretary for rural development, the reorganization “will elevate rural development agencies to report directly to the secretary of agriculture to ensure that rural America always has a seat at the table,” said USDA. Rural income, education and employment rates traditionally lag behind urban America.

“The economic health of small towns across America is crucial for the future of the agriculture economy,” said Perdue in a statement. “It is my commitment to always argue for the needs or rural America.”

Unaffected by the reorganization are USDA wings devoted to public nutrition; food safety; agricultural marketing and regulatory programs; and research, education and economics. Three-fourths of USDA spending flows through public nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunch.