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A Public Service Passion in Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture boasts more than 100,000 employees stationed at 4,500 locations in the U.S. and across the world. These employees provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues. Every American is touched by work of the USDA’s 29 agencies. This is through programs protecting the food system and supporting agriculture. But who implements the work of the department?

Meet Kimberly Graham, the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs at the Farm Service Agency. As the first African American and first woman to serve in her role, Kimberly’s lifetime career in public service shines a light on the opportunities available to serve the agriculture industry through a career at the USDA

Humble Beginnings in Public Service

Kimberly Graham was raised 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., in La Plata, Maryland. As her high school graduation approached in 1988, she three had options:

  1. Attend college (if she could find the means to financially afford it)
  2. Pursue a career in the military
  3. Get a “good-paying government job,” as her family said. 

By luck, the USDA visited her high school. There, USDA officials administered a civil service test as part of a widespread recruitment effort. A month later, she was offered a level GS-2 clerk typist position in the Tobacco and Peanuts Division within the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which later became the Farm Service Agency. 

That job offer marked Kimberly’s first thought to pursue a career in the agriculture industry. And laid the foundation for what would become a 35-year and counting career in public service. 

In Agriculture By Chance

Securing a position with the USDA out of all possible government positions was pure luck. With no previous experience in agriculture, Kimberly was hungry to learn more after being hired. She attended meetings beyond the requirements of her role, listened to policy discussions, and forged new connections to excel in her public service position. 

A few years after beginning at the USDA, she vividly remembers a life milestone her role provided: flying on an airplane for the first time.

In the spring of 1993, Kimberly traveled from her Washington D.C. office to St. Francis County, Arkansas, to learn about rice and cotton production. She also observed how USDA programs were administered at a local level.

Her visit was featured in the Forest City, Arkansas’ Times Herald as the ‘Visitor from Washington,’ with a photo standing with Miss St. Francis County Rice on the paper’s front page. She remembers her entire family going to the airport to see her off, then welcoming her back after the trip. 

Kimberly Graham featured in the Forest City, Arkansas Times Herald as the ‘Visitor from Washington,’ with a photo standing with Miss St. Francis Country Rice on the paper's front page

Kimberly was accepted to the USDA Upward Mobility Program early in her career. Then, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in management studies, followed by a graduate certification in project management from the University of Maryland during her employment.

She raised three children and continued her full-time role during her education. Completing the educational programs – paired with her quick learning abilities and natural drive – allowed her to continue advancing through leadership. 

Today after many promotions from her original clerk typist position, Kimberly is a career Senior Executive Service (SES) member at the USDA, serving as the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs in the Farm Service Agency. 

What Does the Farm Service Agency Do? 

The Farm Service Agency is one of 29 agencies housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is responsible for providing a safety net for America’s farmers through commodity and disaster programs, overseeing conservation programs, and providing loan assistance, among other farmer support. 

Assistant Deputy Administrator of Farm Programs for the agency, Kimberly Graham working at her computer

As Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs for the agency, Kimberly explains that the programs she oversees can be grouped into four categories: price support, safety net, conservation, and program delivery.

The Farm Service Agency is one of the larger agencies within the Department. It includes an array of programs well-known to those working in production agriculture. Like the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), Marketing Assistance Loans and Loan Deficiency Payments, safety net programs, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Dairy Margin Protection Program, COVID-19 pandemic assistance programs, as well as an array of permanent and ad-hoc disaster assistance programs. Specific marketing assistance loans, beginning farmer loans, and programs to support distressed borrowers are also included in the agency’s oversight. 

A Day-To-Day with the USDA

Kimberly says that the programs she administers are proven beneficial because they have aided the country’s farmers, ranchers, and producers. They do this by increasing their business revenue, providing disaster assistance, providing interim financing at harvest times to help meet cash flow needs, improving land and water quality while preventing soil erosion, helping to expand markets, including organic products, assisting new and beginning farmers, and providing additional opportunities to serve in their local communities.

The USUDA Whitten Building

Her day-to-day activities can include internal meetings to organize the deployment of programs, policy updates from department leadership, meetings with congressional staffers to provide education on the agency’s programs, fulfilling budget requests, management of those who report to her, and developing unique ways to provide producers with farm program support that allows them to be successful. Collaboration with her team and individuals across the department is a large component of her role. 

Some of her meetings are virtual, with others happening in the USDA Whitten and South buildings in Washington, D.C. Other responsibilities of her role allow Kimberly to travel across the country for conferences. And to connect with field office staff that deploy many of the programs she oversees. 

Advice for FarmHers 

The onward and upward trend of Kimberly’s career has come with its challenges. She remembers particularly at the beginning of her career being the only woman – and often the only African American – in an office or meeting room. During field visits, she felt even more isolated by the lack of diversity in rural areas. 

A podium at the USDA

Kimberly applauds the many mentors in her career who encouraged her to leverage her skills and abilities to set higher career goals and to avoid the fear of failure! They also encouraged her to put in extra effort to reach high levels of achievement. And to be confident in her abilities.

She encourages other women to find supporters that can see their challenges and encourage them to break through glass ceilings!

“Walk in those spaces and don’t be fearful of being the only one. Shine when you have your opportunity,” Kimberly said. “Leverage the folks you have around you that are for you. Lean on the ones that have been there before.”

Kimberly Graham from the USDA standing at her office

Everybody Eats 

Find More Stories at Everybody Eats

We all eat, and that is why farming will always matter.  Everybody Eats is where the stories of food and farming intersect.  

These stories told through my FarmHer lens connect us to our food and more importantly, the people behind it.  

Nationwide’s Everybody Eats is a collection of stories of those who protect our rural communities, grow our food with extraordinary care, and provide support, education, and assistance to make sure Everybody Eats.


One thought on “A Public Service Passion in Agriculture

  1. This is a great story of someone who has definitely met challenges head on and never gave up. Mrs. Graham is a good example of how determination and hard work can pay off.

    I enjoyed reading her story and learning more about her; she never ceases to amaze me! ????

    Keep up the good work Kim!

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