Concordia native named USDA Chief of Staff in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 29, 2015
Karla Thieman

Karla Thieman, originally of Concordia, started an exciting new venture with the United States Department of Agriculture last month -- she was named as the department's chief of staff.

"Karla brings to this position strong leadership, sound judgement and a fierce passion for agriculture and rural America," said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a press release. "Karla also understands that USDA is helping to lead transformational change across the country in energy, nutrition, trade, research, conservation and in building a bio-based economy from the ground up."

Thieman first joined USDA April 2014, as a senior policy advisor to Vilsack, also later serving as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden.

Prior to joining USDA, Thieman worked for the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. She also worked on the campaigns of U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Working on those successful campaigns helped her hone skills, she said.

"I think personal achievements for me were gaining management experience at a young age -- both managing large staffs and budgets," noted Thieman, in an email.

She added she had an ultimate desire to work in Washington, D.C., and working on the Senate Agriculture Committee allowed her to do so. While working for the committee, she was under three different chairmen -- U.S. Senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

"I got there in a little bit of a roundabout way, but agriculture policy was something I studied in college and had been following closely for a number of years," said Thieman. "It was a dream come true to have the opportunity to work on the agriculture committee. The biggest achievement there was to help write and pass the 2014 Farm Bill."

She worked on a number of policy issues, including livestock, dairy, energy and regulatory programs for the bill. Each of the three chairs were different, with Harkin and Lincoln having the biggest differences.

"Senator Harkin was more populist and fairly progressive. Senator Lincoln was very much a moderate and was chair in a very difficult time where she faced a tough re-election," related Thieman.

Working for the varied personalities and types of lawmakers also helped Thieman hone other skills.

"...Each were on very different ends of the spectrum. That's part of the learning to be a staffer, though. You have to learn (about) the member you are working for and how to represent them and their constituents in the best possible way."

Growing up in Concordia helped Thieman on her career path, she noted.

"Growing up on a farm and in a rural community provides real life perspective for the work that we do and the impact it has," she said.

The biggest surprise working in Washington on agriculture policy, Thieman said, is how few of her colleagues actually came from rural communities.

"There are certainly some ... but I think we are in the minority," she said. "I think having that complete understanding and not just what we picked up from reading papers certainly provides an advantage, and we are able to be better advocates for farmers and rural America."

A number of Thieman's skills developed while participating in extracurricular activities from her school years in Concordia. She participated in the Science Olympiad, as well as 4-H and FFA.

There are a number of difficulties facing the agricultural industry, she said, one of which is a disconnect between farmers and consumers.

"The number of Americans engaged in farming has been on a steady decline since the early 1900s. As consumers become several generations detached from farming, they are also becoming more interested in where and how their food was produced," she said.

This is causing some ripples as consumers are increasingly looking at a number of issues, which include animal welfare and genetically modified organisms, she said.

"I think there's a silver lining and an opportunity to create new, niche markets for the consumers that are willing to pay a premium for products that meet their desires. As long as there aren't sweeping measures put in place to hinder our ability to produce food," said Thieman.

Another issue facing agriculture is finding the next generation of farmers. According to Thieman, by 2050 global population will hit more than 9 billion people.

"To meet food demands of that population, we will need to double our crop production. The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58. We spend a good portion of time thinking about how do we find the next generation of farmers, and if there are changes to programs that can be made to encourage new and beginning farmers," she said.

Of recent policy items that were Thieman's focus, a major one was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which reached a deal Monday, Oct. 5. While the U.S. and 11 other countries agreed to the accord, it still has to face congressional debate.

"...Many in agriculture are watching very closely, and there are always trade barriers other countries put up against our products that are not based on science that we are working to break down," she said.

Thieman's appointment was a surprise and she said she's incredibly honored to serve the department.

"USDA has incredible employees. We are a large agency with roughly 99,000 employees in the U.S. and around the world," said Thieman.

Thieman is the stepdaughter of Nancy Thieman, of Concordia, and the daughter of the late Jim Thieman. She is a 2002 graduate of Concordia R-2 High School and graduated in 2006 from the University of Missouri, in Columbia, with a degree in agriculture economics.

Contact Charles Dunlap at concordianreporter@centurytel.net

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Oct. 7 edition of The Concordian, of which Charles Dunlap is the lead reporter.