USDA: Looking Ahead

Edward Thomas “Ed” Schafer was sworn in as the 29th secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Jan. 28, 2008. His background includes serving as a two-term governor of North Dakota as well as extensive private-sector experience as both an entrepreneur and a business executive.

As North Dakota’s governor, Schafer made diversifying and expanding North Dakota’s economy, reducing the cost of government, and advancing agriculture his top priorities in office. To expand the state’s job base, he encouraged the growth of value-added agricultural industries such as pasta and corn sweetener manufacturing.

Schafer also served as chair of the Western Governors’ Association and chair of the Republican Governors Association. In 2000, he co-founded and co-chaired the Governors Biotechnology Partnership to increase public understanding and support for the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

He has had a lifelong interest in conservation and helped arrange the U.S. Forest Service’s May 2007 purchase of the 5,200-acre Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. The site was where Theodore Roosevelt had his home and operated a cattle ranch in the 1880s. It is near the preserved town of Medora – the state’s leading tourist attraction.

Schafer graduated from the University of North Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and earned an MBA from the University of Denver.

Schafer enjoys the outdoors; his hobbies include bicycling, hiking, scuba diving, and restoring classic automobiles. He and his wife, Nancy, have four children: Tom Schafer, Ellie Schafer, Eric Jones, and Kari Hammer; and eight grandchildren.


Recently, all the former living secretaries of agriculture gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Much of the conversation centered on how unique this wonderful organization is from other federal departments and how proud we all were of the mission and the employees of the USDA.

In 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln founded the USDA, he called it “the People’s Department” because it affected so many people’s lives in so many ways. Now, 150 years later, the USDA has grown to somehow touch everyone’s life in some way, every day. And with the mission of overseeing the production and consumption of the most abundant, least expensive, and safest food supply on Earth, it brings a foundational strength to the United States of America that is the envy of all others. The department delivers the mission with a commitment, passion, and friendliness that is way above what is expected from a government entity today.

I first realized this shortly after arriving at my new job at the helm as secretary as I went about getting to know the organization as fast as possible. We had developed a transition plan that allowed me to get up to speed with each agency in the department and also to interact with as many employees as possible. This included everything from lunch room gatherings to hanging out in the gym facilities. I also desired to find out how the USDA interacted with the other agencies in the president’s Cabinet and set out to meet the Cabinet members.

As the meetings were being set up, I realized that the secretaries and commissioners were coming to meet me instead of me going to their offices. I asked the scheduler why I wasn’t going to their facilities because, after all, it was my desire to learn about the other operations and I also had the curiosity to see my counterpart’s offices and locations. She responded that people would rather come to the USDA because it was more enjoyable. That piqued my interest and I had to find out what that was all about.

I soon realized that in the beautiful architecture and culture of Washington, D.C., most of the operating departments are dark and somewhat dreary, with standard layouts, crammed quarters, and employees who are working hard, but are so absorbed with their work that developing relationships with their co-workers and leaders suffers. And that is why people liked to visit me instead of having me come to their buildings – because they wanted to experience the warmth and friendliness that the organization provides.

Agriculture tends to be non-partisan with the focus not on politics, but on making people’s lives better through good food and nutrition. Everyone has an interest in that and while there are differences of opinion on how to go about things, the productive capacity of our soil and natural resources gives us a foundational strength that cannot be politicized. A healthy, comfortable, and secure population makes our country stronger, smarter, better, and more competitive than [any other]. It also produces a culture of hard work, courage, and justice that shapes our society. The willingness to share the bounty and lend a helping hand to someone in need comes naturally to those who work the land and that creates people steeped [in] high character and values that generate our neighborhoods and communities.

The people interested in the arena of agriculture are those who go to work for the United States Department of Agriculture. They understand hard work and have a desire to accomplish the tasks at hand. Employees are smart, accomplished, and focused on delivering the goods and services [of]

farmers, ranchers, and landowners across our country. At the same time, they [remain] focused on the nutritional needs of children and mothers and those in need. And they do it all with a neighborliness and friendliness that I grew to appreciate during my time at USDA.

Today, more than ever, we need to strengthen our foundation of high character, honesty, and individual effort so the United States of America can continue to grow and flourish. USDA will continue to lead the way.

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