Kerman, Calif., farmer A. J. Yates harvested his latest almond variety from his small orchard in Fresno County one recent Monday. Wednesday he was off to Washington to become head of the USDA Marketing Service.
The 67-year old native Texan who came to California as a toddler with his parents in 1936 during the Dust Bowl era and farmed all his adult life now becomes a key policymaker in a federal agency involved in virtually every segment of American agriculture.
Farming is struggling through its most depressed economic times since Yates' family headed west during the Great Depression. And the future has become even more tenuous by the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 — Tuesday of the week his appointment was to be announced in his hometown.
The division Yates took over as administrator on Oct. 1 has far ranging responsibilities from setting the standards of organic farming to research and promotions programs for most of the major commodities produced in this country, from cotton to beef to mushrooms to honey.
It's a challenge he relishes with “not many old farm boys get an opportunity like this.”
Yates has farmed all his life in the Kerman area just west of Fresno. He has only 30 acres of almonds now. He has farmed as many as 1,500 acres on his own and was in partnership on another 7,500 acres. He has also worked in management roles with a large farming operation on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. He has most of the major crops produced in his county: cotton, grapes, sugar beets, grapes, alfalfa and others.
“I have walked many furrows and driven many miles so I understand what farmers face today, and today times are tough as I've ever seen,” said Yates. “I have always been a farmer and I hope I can make a difference now.”
He has the background not only in the fields, but in government to make that difference. Yates relieved himself of debt several years ago by selling several of his ranches and went into public service. He served nine years in key administrative posts in the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). He worked under three state secretaries of agriculture, including the current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. He held the department's No. 2 post as under secretary with Veneman for four years.
On the state level Yates managed divisions handling animal health, food safety service, inspection services, marketing services plant health and pest prevention services.
While USDA/AMS is much larger, he sees his experience in Sacramento as excellent on-the-job training for AMS.
USDA/AMS includes six division, cotton, dairy, fruit and vegetable, livestock and seed, poultry and tobacco. The division's specialists provide standardization, grading and market news service to those commodities. It also enforces federal laws as the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act and the Federal Seed Act.
AMS oversees the federal research and promotion programs, including Cotton Incorporated, the beef, soybean, mohair and pork check-off programs and the federal milk marketing orders as well as the national peanut, watermelon, potato, honey and mushroom promotion boards or councils.
“California has 50 marketing orders and many of these have national components. I have worked with all of them in California,” said Yates. The scope is larger in AMS, and he admits there will be a learning curve for him. Nevertheless, he believes the premise behind research and promotion efforts are the same on the state or federal level.
“I support the ability of farmers to promote their products. If we are to make a profit in farming, we have got to sell our products worldwide,” said Yates. “You have to let people know what you have and the quality of what you want to market.”
Yates said AMS plays a key role with its inspection services. Buyers, said Yates, are assured of getting the quality they purchase. “If it is graded No. 1 by USDA, buyers know that is what they are getting,” he noted.
“Many small farmers do not have the ability to market their products like many large farmers do. It is important for all farmers to have the ability to come together and sell their commodities,” he said.
Maintaining the health of agriculture means keeping it clean. No place has had more exotic pest wars with than California. Yates is proud of his track record in riding the state of many of them. “We instituted a new preventative (sterile) release program for the Medfly in Los Angeles that was extremely successful.
“We forged an alliance with Mexico in helping control the Mexican fruit fly and tuberculosis in cattle there,” he said.
“I am convinced cooperative solutions are always better than regulations,” said Yates. “That has proven successful in California not only within industries in the state but with our partners south of the border.”
As a key decision-maker within USDA, Yates understands that one of his most challenging roles will be the economic plight of farmers “I have faith that the ag economy will turnaround,” but that reversal of fortunes will come via successful marketing. “That is the key to a profitable industry,” he said.
With commodities prices at levels his parents saw decades ago during the Depression, Yates said it would not be easy to extricate farmers from the current reliance on federal support programs, which are now providing 50 percent of the nation's net farm income.
“We cannot wait to hit bottom. We have got to be a part of the process of finding markets for our products,” he said.
He cited the California almond industry as an example of an industry that has grown rapidly, but with that growth has come new technology to reduce costs as well as aggressive marketing efforts to move increasingly larger crops.
California almond producers are on the brink of producing one billion pounds of almonds in a season, more than double just a few years ago. “The industry is responding to the production with aggressive marketing efforts.
“New growing techniques have allowed us to do a more efficient job of producing big crops and still generate a profit,” he said.
Yates's responsibilities will go far beyond research and promotion efforts. He is responsible for AMS' Science and Technology Division, which provides centralized scientific support to AMS programs, including laboratory analyses, laboratory quality assurance, coordination of scientific research conducted by other agencies for AMS, and statistical and mathematical consulting services. The division also issues certificate of protection for new varieties of sexually reproduced plants and collects and analyzes data about pesticide residue levels in agricultural commodities. It also administers the pesticide recordkeeping program, which requires all certified private applicators of federally restricted-use pesticide to maintain record of all applications.
AMS' Transportation and Marketing Division is another AMS arm. It brings together traffic managers, engineers, rural policy analysts, international trade specialists and agricultural marketing specialists to help solve problems of U.S. and world agricultural transportation.
The division works to ensure that there is an efficient transportation system for rural America that begins at the farm gate, moves agricultural and other rural products into the domestic and international marketplace. It supplies research and technical information to producers, producer groups, shippers, exporters, rural communities, carriers, government agencies and universities.
The division also administers a program involving financial grants to states for marketing improvements. In addition, it assists in the planning and design of marketing facilities, processes, and methods in cooperation with state and local governments, universities, farmer groups, and other segments of the U.S. food industry.
This program enhances the overall effectiveness of the food marketing system, provides better quality products to the consumer at reasonable cost, improves market access for growers with small-to medium-sized farms, and promotes regional economic development.