USDA’s Hubert Hamer On Fighting Climate Change and Fixing Food Insecurity
Other priorities are containing the pandemic, ensuring racial justice and equity, and rebuilding the rural economy.
Hubert Hamer started at the Agriculture Department more than 40 years ago, worked his way up, and now is leading part of the department’s efforts to combat climate change and fix food insecurity.
“I'm extremely fortunate to have a great team of dedicated scientists, statisticians, economists and other professionals in the mission area that have dedicated their careers to research,” said Hamer, who is the acting deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics at USDA, as well as acting chief scientist. “They are service-oriented, and it's a pleasure to work alongside these dedicated civil servants.”
Hamer also served as the first African American administrator of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. “When I came into the organization, I didn't see many role models that look like me and we've seen a lot of changes in Agriculture where I could rise to be the administrator of my organization,” he said.
Government Executive interviewed Hamer on September 30 about his two roles, how climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have impacted the agency’s work and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you give a brief overview of your career in government?
Basically, I have grown up in agriculture. I was born on a small grow crop and livestock farm in North Mississippi and majored in agriculture. I was introduced to USDA through an internship. So, I had a chance to work with USDA’s [National Agricultural Statistics Service] as an intern and I found that it was a great place to work with a lot of broad career options. And after that internship I was offered a full-time position. The agency really stressed mobility, seeing different parts of the world, different parts of the country, and different types of agriculture, so I moved from West Tennessee to Louisiana, where I had a chance to work with some new commodities that I had not experienced in that area, working with crops like rice and sugarcane. So that was an interesting experience. I moved from there to the Midwest; worked in Springfield, Illinois for six and a half years—a lot of different agriculture, large-scale agriculture with a national focus.
We're headquartered in Washington, D.C., so I moved from Illinois into our headquarters because that's where the promotion opportunities are and you have a chance to be a national leader, a national commodity statistician, work on national programs...I had a chance to think about, again, career goals and where I wanted to go in the organization and really thought that working in management would give me more leverage to make changes and contribute at a higher level. So, I sought that route. I was fortunate to be selected for an executive leadership program. I had a chance to be a Senate fellow on the Senate Budget Committee and then also to work in the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture as a developmental assignment. So that was very rewarding for me, allowed me to network, brainstorm and get a chance to meet people outside of my normal walk within the agency. And so that led to my first leadership position as a deputy branch chief in our headquarters area.
From there...I was selected to be our state statistician [and] state director for the state of Missouri, in charge of the agricultural statistics program for the state. I had a chance to act as the spokesperson for statistics in Missouri, so that was very rewarding. Again, selected for another Executive Leadership Program and that again offered me some additional training and some executive leadership experience before I was selected to move into the Senior Executive Service at USDA’s [National Agricultural Statistics Service], basically in charge of our eastern operations: 24 states, plus Puerto Rico, providing all the budget and personnel and all of the, basically all of the tools and equipment needed to manage our eastern operations.
From that position, I moved to be chair of our agricultural statistics board...I moved from that position to director of the statistics division in charge of disseminating more than 450 reports on an annual basis, with information on crops, livestock, economic and environmental statistics. And then from there I moved a lot. I was selected as administrator for my agency, the top position within the agency. And what's interesting is that when I came into the organization, I didn't see many role models that look like me and we've seen a lot of changes in Agriculture where I could rise to be the administrator of my organization. I'm currently serving as the acting deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics at USDA.
You’re also the acting chief scientist at USDA. What are your roles and responsibilities with that?
I'm responsible for advancing scientific knowledge related to agriculture...We accomplish that through our intramural and extramural scientific research programs. We deliver credible scientific research, economic data, statistical analysis and provide scientific guidance through the four science agencies in the mission area, and the Office of the Chief Scientist. Those agencies are: the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. I mentioned also the Office of the Chief Scientist, which provides scientific leadership and ensures that USDA-funded research is held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.
How has climate change impacted the efforts you lead in the USDA’s science portfolio?
It’s absolutely impacted a lot. And one of the things it's done is created an opportunity to use the department's expertise in conservation science and research, and the passion and commitment of our farmers, ranchers and private forest owners to put the United States in a leadership position on climate-smart agricultural solutions. Many USDA research programs and efforts support actions that enable producers and communities to better adapt to and mitigate climate change,
We're researching decision tools to support precision agriculture and production management; there's research to help optimize fertilizer use; animal and plant breeding, cutting edge tools are being developed in that arena; measuring and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions; and the USDA is leveraging the latest technology to advance climate-smart solutions for the food of our nation. Through our USDA climate hubs, we're investing in the ability to translate science and research into actionable information for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. As Secretary [Tom] Vilsack mentioned in his climate speech [on September 29,] USDA scientists provide practical innovative tools that enable producers and communities to better adapt to and mitigate climate change. A couple of other examples, [the National Agricultural Statistics Service] is using radar technology and satellite data to measure the impact of hurricanes and floods on potential agricultural production losses and USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and to conserve and protect our natural resources.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted USDA's research?
Well, when you think about COVID-19, it's really exposed vulnerabilities in our nation's food system, from supply chain gaps and inefficiencies to an outdated business model. If you take a look at the food system—I mean, that includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding the population. That's everything from growing food, harvesting, processing, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food related items, so it's a very complicated system, and the pandemic has exposed opportunities for improvement. There are some concerns about consolidation. It's a fairly rigid system. And this global pandemic has underscored the importance of, again, science, innovation and research and development as critical to ensuring a safe, secure and abundant food supply.
Do you have any current or upcoming projects that you're particularly excited about or you think are particularly interesting?
USDA is committed to being a partner to build more resilient communities and ensuring all Americans have access to safe, healthy, affordable food. Today containing the pandemic, ensuring racial justice and equity, responding to a mounting hunger and nutrition insecurity crisis and rebuilding the rural economy, and addressing the impacts of climate change are really our top priorities. So, USDA has always focused on delivering data, data driven science that helps shape policies that have a profound impact on all Americans and our nation's food system.
How do you balance having two major roles at the agency?
It's an awesome responsibility that requires strong commitment and curiosity and I'm extremely fortunate to have a great team of dedicated scientists, statisticians, economists and other professionals in the mission area that have dedicated their careers to research. They are service-oriented, and it's a pleasure to work alongside these dedicated civil servants. So, it's a team effort to get these research priorities done; no one's working alone to accomplish this.
Is there anything else you like to add?
As recovery from COVID-19 continues to unfold, we need to build our food systems back in ways that equal resilience to future shocks, promote sustainability and leave no one behind. The United States has long been a leader in agricultural research and development to improve productivity and promote more efficient climate-smart use of natural resources in agriculture. By leveraging science and innovation, we can expand the toolbox for farmers, foresters and other producers to build sustainability and resilience in our food systems. So, we have a big charge, but I think we're up to that effort here at USDA.