Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack continues to see key members of his leadership team find approval by the Senate as well as the White House. Key undersecretaries were nominated, and support roles approved by the White House.
The U.S. Senate voted 76-19 late Tuesday to confirm Robert Bonnie to serve as undersecretary for farm production and conservation. The Senate Ag Committee held a hearing on his nomination in July, but a hold was placed on his nomination on the Senate floor.
The Senate Agricultural Committee will also hold a hearing Wednesday, November 17, to consider the nominations of Chavonda J. Jacobs-Young to be undersecretary of agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics and Margo Schlanger to be an assistant secretary of agriculture.
Vilsack also announced his intent to nominate Jose Emilio Esteban to serve as undersecretary for food safety.
Bonnie to lead climate efforts
Upon his nomination, Bonnie received high praise from those in the ag sector after working with Bonnie during his time at USDA during the Obama administration. He also oversaw the transition at USDA from the Trump administration to the Biden administration.
“Democratic and Republican members alike praise Mr. Bonnie’s extensive credentials and commitment to tackling the climate crisis and boosting farm income at the same time. He is well qualified for this position and will help carry out USDA’s important mission,” says Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
“Robert Bonnie is no stranger to USDA, having previously served at the department during the Obama administration. During his previous tenure, Mr. Bonnie developed a reputation of listening to stakeholders, an approach I expect will continue as he is sworn-in as undersecretary for farm production and conservation,” adds Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark. “I appreciate and support his commitment to advancing voluntary and incentive-based climate programs that stay within the bounds of existing law. I am committed to working with him to ensure the agencies he oversees make producer-driven decisions that help our farmers, ranchers and private landowners succeed.”
National Corn Growers Association President Chris Edgington says the corn growers look forward to working with Bonnie in his new role.
“As production agriculture continues to face multiple challenges from climate to markets, Mr. Bonnie will play an important role in responding to farmer needs. Having previously served as the undersecretary for natural resources and environment, he has experience working with a variety of stakeholders and overseeing important USDA agencies. These experiences, his commitment to bipartisanship, along with his ongoing work with farmers, ranchers and conservationists, are all reasons NCGA looks forward to working with Robert Bonnie in his new role.”
Food safety undersecretary named
Long-time leader at the Food Safety and Inspection Service Esteban was selected to serve as the undersecretary of food safety which will require full Senate confirmation.
“Esteban has a deep understanding of USDA’s commitment to protect the health of the public by providing food safety. Having held several leadership roles in USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, he has a proven, and extensive, track record on this key issue,” says Vilsack.
Esteban started his tenure at FSIS in 2001 and held the roles of laboratory director for the Western Laboratory, scientific adviser for Laboratory Services and Research Coordination, and executive associate for Laboratory Services. In 2018, he was appointed chief scientist of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. In his role, Esteban provides scientific advice to support agency policies including the disciplines of microbiology, chemistry and pathology. Prior to joining USDA, Esteban worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic intelligence service officer, staff epidemiologist, and assistant director of the Food Safety Office.
He currently serves as the chair for the Codex Alimentarius Commission Committee on Food Hygiene, the committee where international food hygiene standards are defined for international trade. He is also currently vice president of the International Association for Food Protection.
Trained as a veterinarian in Mexico, Esteban supplemented his training with an MBA, a master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine, and a PhD in epidemiology from University of California, Davis.
Additional leadership positions named
USDA also announced the official nominations of positions that do not require Senate approval. This includes Shefali Mehta to serve as deputy undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics; Colin Finan as senior adviser for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Marcia Bunger as administrator for the Risk Management Agency.
“Under the leadership of Shefali, Marcia and Colin, USDA’s commitment to advancing science, research and education and serving the Nation’s farmers and ranchers will only be furthered,” says Vilsack. “Their skills and experience are a welcomed addition to our talented staff.”
Mehta comes to USDA from Open Rivers Consulting Associates where she served as the founder and principal of strategy and implementation. Prior to Open Rivers, Mehta was the executive director at the Soil Health Partnership, the flagship sustainability program of the National Corn Growers Association. In this role, Mehta led the transformation and expansion of farmer-led, multi-stakeholder programs to increase adoption of healthy soil practices across the U.S. Her invaluable leadership and vision helped expand the Soil Health Partnership to strengthen processes, improve structure of the organization, and boost outreach to sustain the culture of the organization.
Most recently, Finan served as vice president at McCabe Message Partners, a Washington-based public relations firm focused on healthcare communications. Prior to McCabe, Finan worked as a manager and senior associate on the Safe Food Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. Colin was responsible for managing all federal and state outreach regarding passage and implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Finan received his bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin.
Bunger joins USDA after serving as a County Executive Director for USDA’s Farm Service Agency for 18 years. In total, she has over 25 years of experience working for USDA in the Farm Service Agency.
Recently, she founded an agriculture consulting limited liability company providing assistance to area farmers and ranchers and to work with a local crop insurance agency selling and servicing crop insurance policies. Bunger is also the owner and operator of a 2000-acre, family-owned farm. Bunger graduated cum laude and received her bachelor’s degree from Augustana College.
She will be the first person who is a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the first woman to serve as administrator for RMA.