Washington Beat Book

Written for reporters by reporters, the Washington Beat Book provides a crash course in government agencies for those assigned to cover the federal government. Paul Miller Fellows select and profile each agency, with relevant links and resources. Click an agency seal to browse the information compiled by our fellows, or navigate directly to an agency's website with the provided link.

Department of Agriculture

In 2009, the USDA will spend about $95 billion, according to budget estimates, and it's not just about agriculture. In addition to subsidies to ranchers and farmers, the agency handles nutrition, school lunches, promoting exports, WIC, ag research, soil and water conservation, managing the national forests, marketing commodities domestically, inspecting food, rural development, preparing against Avian flu and developing renewable energy sources such as biofuels.



1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Wahington, DC 20250


The subsidies, which were about $81 billion from 2004-2008, generate the most controversy, especially when the farm bill is up for debate. Although Congress rewrites it every few years, the lobbying starts early and the work usually runs long.

Here is a synopsis of the types of subsidy programs, from a USDA publication:

  • Fixed income transfers (sometimes referred to as "decoupled payments") do not depend on the farmer's production choices, output levels, or market conditions. These include production flexibility contract and fixed direct payments. They cover subsidized “program” crops such as wheat, corn, cotton and rice.
  • Marketing loan and other miscellaneous program benefits augment market receipts when commodity prices are low and depend on the farmer's production and market conditions. These include loan deficiency payments.
  • Ad hoc and emergency payments compensate eligible farmers for economic or natural disasters. These include crop disaster payments, dairy indemnity and market loss payments, livestock compensation and emergency assistance payments, among others.
  • Conservation payments reimburse participating farmers for all or part of the cost of implementing conservation practices. These include Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wetland Reserve Program, and Environmental Quality Incentive Program payments, among others.

For a complete glossary of terms: www.ers.usda.gov/Features/FarmBill/2002glossary.htm

Mad cow, aka Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE

If a case turns up in your state, you will need to plug into the USDA's Chief Veterinary Officer and his staff, which is the federal office in charge of investigating. They are part of the USDA'S Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). This issue is also related to a national animal identification system that is in the works. A website with a primer about the disease and contact names and numbers:http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/hot_issues/bse/index.shtml

Black farmers

A 1999 consent decree was designed to compensate black farmers who were denied loans for discriminatory reasons. While the USDA did not admit fault, the decree has paid out or forgiven loans worth about $900 million over the years. The terms of the decree continue to be a source of controversy, especially among farmers who have again been denied assistance.
Website with up to date statistics on the Pigford settlement for black farmers:

Overview on every facet of agriculture

Congressional Committees

U.S. House Committee on Agriculture


Tamara Hinton, Media Contact
Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK.
Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN 

The committee has a handy searchable glossary of ag terms at http://agriculture.house.gov/info/glossary.html

U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Ben Becker, press secretary

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI

Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-KS


American Farm Bureau Federation (www.fb.org)

Largest farm organization in the U.S.

Bob Stallman, president

Don Lipton, director, public relations

Mace Thornton, deputy director, public relations

Phyllis Brown, assistant director, public relations

Tracy Taylor Grondine, director, media relations

Find a full staff directory with phone numbers and
email addresses at
The Farm Bureau has affiliates in all 50 states, many of whom also have representatives in Washington. Here is a link to the state by state info: www.fb.org/state/

National Farmers Union (www.nfu.org)

Represents small and family farms; more liberal, populist than the Farm Bureau.

Roger Johnson, president

Melisa Augusto, director of communications


Cenex Harvest States
one of biggest farmer-owned cooperatives in the U.S.

Lani Jordan, director of communications

Does this agency's information need updating? programs@nationalpress.org

Contact Information

USDA key staff

Secretary Tom Vilsack

John Norris, chief of staff

Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff

Office of Communications

Chris Mather, director, Office of Communications

Jim Brownlee, assistant director for public affairs

Larry Quinn, assistant director for communications operations

Nayyera Haq, press secretary

Angela Harless, communications coordinator - avian influenza/disease/marketing & regulatory programs/homeland security

Jerry Redding, communications coordinator for food safety & nutrition

Full USDA employee directory: http://dc-directory.hqnet.usda.gov/pdf/usda_dc_agency.pdf