President Barack Obama's nominee to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Krysta Harden, sat before the Senate Agriculture Committee July 23 and received high marks for her ability to use her farm roots and Washington experience to help USDA navigate in the future years. In addition, over 140 agricultural groups wrote the committee a letter in support of Harden's nomination.
Introducing her to the committee, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) said Harden despite serving many years in Washington, D.C., still refers to herself as a Georgia farm girl. He noted she's never forgotten her roots from growing up on a peanut farm, but instead will bring a wealth of knowledge, rustic upbringing and federal experience to the No. 2 post at USDA.
Harden said she's a "product of rural America." She grew up in Camilla, Georgia, on a diversified farm where her parents carried on a long family history of agriculture. Her father grew up raising tobacco, fruits and vegetables. Her mother came from a traditional row crop farm, where her family also had a cow/calf operation.
Harden currently serves as chief of staff to ag secretary Tom Vilsack since 2011. She previously served as assistant secretary for congressional relations at USDA from 2009 to 2011. From 2004 to 2009, she served as the chief executive officer of the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Previously, Harden was the senior vice president of Gordley Associates from 1993 to 2004, and worked particularly for soybean producers. She served as staff director for the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Peanuts and Tobacco from 1992 to 1993. From 1981 to 1992, she held a number of roles including legislative director, chief of staff, and press secretary for Congressman Charles Hatcher. Harden received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Georgia.
"My combined experience in those roles taught me that our farmers and ranchers must run a sound business. They must understand science, innovation and mechanics – not to mention have the stamina to work long hours," Harden testified.
Bishop said he's had the privilege of working with Harden on a range of challenging and sensitive issues and has found her to be "bipartisan and no-nonsense in her way of problem solving." He added he found her to be "honest, forthright and fair."
In questioning from Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) on regulatory burdens that hit farmers, Harden admitted that "commonsense gets lost sometimes." In practical approaches what sounds good on paper in the office, does not make good sense on the ground, she added, and said she doesn't have to go far to get an "earful from my Daddy" if something goes too far.
"I can't tell you I can fix everything. But I'm aware, I understand and I agree with you. I will do what I can in that role," she said, adding that there are ways to find practical approaches and from her personal experience she knows that farmers want to do what's right if they're given the chance.
In her prepared testimony, Harden said during her time as assistant secretary for congressional relations she helped implement the 2008 Farm Bill. She responded to questions on the new farm bill, that she's ready for Congress to send USDA one. "You send us a farm bill and we'll get it done," she said, noting hopefully she will be leading that effort if confirmed.
Harden made strong statements about the need to continue investment in rural America. She said if confirmed, she hopes to play a key role in leading USDA’s efforts to revitalize and strengthen the rural economy.
She also voiced the need to continue to expand the opportunities for producers in local and regional markets, something her predecessor Kathleen Merrigan championed in expanding farmer market access nationwide. Since 2009, she testified that there has been a 67% increase in the number of farmers markets nationwide – and today, there are more than 220 regional food hubs in operation around the country.
The Senate Ag Committee still needs to officially vote upon the nomination which it did not do the day of the hearing before the full Senate votes on Harden's nomination.