More than 10 months after President Donald Trump was sworn in, USDA is finally filling key cabinet positions including USDA deputy secretary. After months of rumblings, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tapped Stephen Censky for the post.
“My message is to keep the faith,” said Censky on “AgriTalk” radio shortly after being confirmed. “We know our producers are the most productive in the world, and we’re certainly doing everything we can at the department and in the administration to try to have regulatory reform so we can ease the burden. We’re looking for new opportunities on trade, and we’re looking on how we can increase rural prosperity.”
Censky’s overall role sounds simple: maintain the day-to-day operations at USDA while Perdue remains in the public eye. However, it’s far from simple with complex policies and issues to tackle.
“I’m working on advancing the programs and policies USDA implements to make sure we’re running as effectively as possible,” said Censky.
That includes reorganizing USDA so the agency works for producers.
“I will be moving forward with some of the reorganization plans Secretary Perdue has laid out to improve our customer service and be more farmer-facing—putting our farmer-facing agencies together and implementing the new trade undersecretary,” he said.
Censky said a rural prosperity priority is expanding broadband access.
One of the timeliest issues is trade, as North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations are ongoing. While Censky pointed out the U.S. trade representative’s office will lead those efforts, he said it’s an interagency priority to find a deal that bodes better for the U.S. as a whole.
“We see opportunities for agriculture in other areas whether that’s Japan, Vietnam or other nations in Southeast Asia,” he said. “We want to have not only the improvements of negotiations, but the offense of creating new opportunities.”
Censky also listed the farm bill as a priority. He enters the agency with a working knowledge of farm bill programs and how they impact farmers, thanks to his 21 years as CEO of the American Soybean Association.
Congress is ultimately charged with writing the farm bill, but Censky said USDA will offer guidance.
“The department is also working on our own priorities and principles to try to share with Congress as they write the farm bill,” Censky
explained, “not in a prescriptive sort of way, but some general ideas as well as corrections and improvements that can be made to existing programs that come from our experience of running those programs.”
Another timely issue involves finding sustainable funding for the Forest Service, an area Censky isn’t as well versed. “The Forest Service is spending over 50% of its budget fighting forest fires,” he said. “The Forest Service runs out of fire fighting funds early in the fiscal year and then has to borrow from other accounts to fight fires.”