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Loading up at Pomeroy Grain Growers in Central Ferry on the Snake River last fall.
Photo by Resa Cox

COAXIUM

CLS

POLICY

Taking the helm

New FSA state executive director brings passion for agriculture to the job

February 2018
By Trista Crossley

Brian Dansel has had a lot of titles in the past eight years: Ferry County commissioner, state senator, special assistant to the U.S. secretary of agriculture. In November 2017, he added one more: state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA).

Dansel grew up in Republic, Wash., where he still lives with his wife and son. His first foray into public service, prompted by a property rights issue, happened in 2010 when he was elected as a Ferry County commissioner.

“I got into public service because I did not like the Growth Management Act, and I wanted to make some changes,” he explained. “I never felt really super political. I was a more of a mind-my-own-business type of person, but when other people stuck their nose in my business, then it was time to get involved.”

Dansel moved on to the state legislature in 2013, becoming a senator for the 7th District. While in the Senate, he was an advocate of agriculture, serving on both the Senate Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee. In January 2017, Dansel resigned his Senate seat to take a position as a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture as part of the Trump Administration’s initial “beachhead” team. He said he spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., focusing on rural infrastructure.

Dansel has headed up the state FSA team for a couple of months now. He dropped into the Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ January board meeting to introduce himself to growers, telling them that he was driven to be part of USDA because, “I want to be in an agency that gets to yes on commonsense stuff.” He told growers that some of the hot topics FSA will be dealing with in the coming months include the 2018 Farm Bill and protecting conservation programs. He also said that under the direction of the current ag secretary, Sonny Perdue, the agency is focusing on being more consumer and user friendly.

FSA is still under a hiring freeze, leaving some county offices short-staffed. When asked about that situation, Dansel said it all comes down to the budget that Congress eventually passes.

After the board meeting, Dansel sat down with Wheat Life to answer some questions.

From your perspective, what is FSA’s role in the state’s agricultural industry?

I think we are a tool in the toolshed. I think what we really are is a trusted uncle. I feel like we are there for technical advice as well as helping young farmers and established farmers be able to make a go of it. My job isn’t to be political anymore, which is kind of a neat thing. I tell people that my opinion on stuff really doesn’t matter anymore. It did when I was voting, and I had no problem giving my opinion. My job now is to implement and oversee and administer programs and people and a workforce that is aimed at helping farmers and producers.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has hit the enrollment cap set by the 2014 Farm Bill and very few applications are being processed. In Washington state, more than 400,000 CRP acres are set to expire through 2020 with no guarantee that they’ll be eligible to be re-enrolled. What would you tell producers, and is there anything the state FSA office can do?

It’s being worked on. It’s a conversation that is constantly being had between state directors and the administration. There are certain things that happen when a new administration comes in, and this is one of them. Quite frankly, they are going to take a look at all the programs to see what’s working and what’s not…(CRP) just happens to be, along with ARC/PLC, one of the programs that is always talked about when it comes to the budget. It’s a budgetary issue and not so much a policy issue. I look forward to working with everybody to try to come up with a solution.

Do you think conservation programs have room for improvement?

I think what you’ve seen from the secretary is that improvement is possible in a lot of areas. What I think you are really going to see is customer service improving, which is something that we all want. There is a special onus there—we are supposed to be making sure we prioritize that. After all, we are here to serve the people.

What are some of the things that have surprised you about this job?

I haven’t had any negative surprises. Agriculture has been a pretty big tenet in my platform, no matter if I was running for county commissioner or if I was running for the state Senate. I will tell you that generally speaking, people in agriculture are amazing people. They have big hearts. They do things for the right reasons. I’ve just seen an overwhelming generosity in the people.

Agriculture is a special industry to me because of how the entire world is dependent on U.S. agriculture. The world is dependent on Washington state agriculture. And to me, you have some of the most hardest working people (in agriculture), the people with the kind of values I consider to be right—hard work, the value of earning everything you have. Anyway, to me, it’s just the overwhelming goodness of people in agriculture.

What’s the learning curve been like?

Steep. It’s like being fed through a firehose, frankly. But, again, we have a competent and great staff at the state office. I know my predecessor (Judy Olson) did a hell of a job. It was very easy for me to step in because Judy had everything working pretty smoothly. The staff is the same way. I have been pleasantly surprised all around. The people that have been helping me out are folks that are so amazing and can explain things so well and have such a wide breadth of experience from their years of doing this stuff. If I have a question, I just pick up a phone and there will be 40 different people who can answer it.

You aren’t going to know everything, obviously, so at this point, it’s general themes. I know enough to be dangerous, but that’s where it’s so important to get good people in, and that’s what I believe Sec. Perdue has done. I think we are entering an era where we will have the ability to do great things for agriculture.

What do you want Washington wheat growers to know about you?

That I’m here for them and that I want to partner with them as much as possible. Also that I’m thankful for them. I am thankful for the service they provide. I think it’s one of those things that’s maybe a little silly sounding, but without wheat growers, without the producers of this world, we wouldn’t be a civilized culture. The ability to have a safe, reliable, affordable food supply is the mark of a country that’s stable. Without producers, we wouldn’t have that. These are the people that make it happen.