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Former Rep. Torres Small is selected to lead rural development at USDA

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Torres Small, “represents the heart and soul of rural communities.”

President Biden chose former Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico to serve as agriculture undersecretary for rural development, overseeing a portfolio of $43 billion in housing, utilities, and business and industry programs. Congress overrode a Trump-era reorganization of USDA to re-create the Senate-confirmed post in 2018.

“Rural Development plays an essential role in so many programs that help small towns and rural areas thrive. It deserves to be championed at the highest levels,” said Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, who was active in restoring rural development to sub-cabinet rank. Torres Small “was a champion for rural development, particularly expanding high-speed internet, during her time in Congress.”

The first woman to represent southwestern New Mexico in Congress, Torres Small was among five people announced as Biden nominees by the White House on Friday for high-level jobs. They included Camille Touton for commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. The Interior Department agency operates 338 reservoirs that provide irrigation water to one of every five farmers in the West and 10 trillion gallons of water to 31 million people annually.

Torres Small narrowly defeated state Rep. Yvette Herrell in 2018 in the Republican-leaning Second Congressional District of New Mexico. Herrell defeated Torres Small by 8 percentage points in a rematch last fall in the vast district, covering the southwestern half of the state. Herrell ran as a Trump conservative who supported gun rights and opposed abortion. Torres Small campaigned as a bipartisan legislator interested in border policy, rural healthcare, and economic opportunity for farmers and other New Mexicans.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Torres Small, “represents the heart and soul of rural communities.” A granddaughter of migrant farmworkers, she worked after college as a field organizer in colonias — unincorporated settlements that often lack water and other services — in southern New Mexico, and later as a field representative for New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall. The White House said Torres Small “raised the alarm on broadband disparities” while in the House and served on a House Democratic task force on rural broadband.

The Trump administration eliminated the post of undersecretary for rural development in May 2017 in order to make room at USDA for an undersecretary for trade, a role created by the 2014 farm bill. Sonny Perdue, then agriculture secretary, said he would elevate the cause of economic development by hiring “a go-to person” to oversee rural programs as one of his assistants. Rural America, he said, would “have walk-in privileges with the secretary.” Critics regarded it as inferior to having a sub-cabinet officer to lead the way.

Although Congress reinstated the rural development post in the 2018 farm bill, the Trump administration did not put forward a nominee.

Rural economic development is divided at USDA into three areas; utilities, housing, and business and industry. Rural housing accounts for the bulk of the portfolio with nearly $30 billion in programs authorized in fiscal 2020. Rural utility programs, which include electricity, broadband, telecommunications and water and sewer projects, are authorized at $9.7 billion. Rural business programs operate at around $2.7 billion. The Rural Development wing of USDA uses loans, grants, and guaranteed loans to assist projects that promote prosperity and better living standards.

Torres Small is the third nominee for eight undersecretary posts at USDA, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Robert Bonnie, Vilsack’s climate adviser, was nominated in April for undersecretary for farm and conservation. Also in April, Jennifer Moffitt was nominated for undersecretary for marketing.

Agricultural law expert Janie Hipp, nominated for USDA general counsel, awaits a confirmation vote by the Senate. The general counsel is in charge of USDA’s legal shop.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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