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NRCS chief Terry Cosby rose through the ranks, committed to serving underserved producers

Terry Cosby grew up on his family's cotton farm in northern Mississippi and graduated from Alcorn State University — the nation’s first Black land grant college — which prepared him to serve historically underserved producers in the country.

A photo of Terry Cosby
Official portrait, Chief Terry Cosby, Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation Service
Courtesy / Tom Witham and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
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Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Terry Cosby's career with the agency began more than 40 years ago when he was hired as a teenage intern in Iowa.

He rose through the ranks to become chief last year, and his conservation and agricultural roots prepared him to serve historically underserved producers the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency is now focused on reaching.

Cosby leads the federal conservation agency, which has 3,000 field offices in its network and helps farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners with carrying out voluntary conservation activities on their operations. He's held numerous leadership and staff positions in his 42-year career with NRCS, including acting chief for several months before becoming the agency's 17th chief in 2021.

Prior to that, he was state conservationist for Ohio for 16 years, deputy state conservationist in Idaho, assistant state conservationist for field operations in Missouri, and area resource conservationist in Iowa.

Seeing the struggle

In 2010, the USDA settled a long standing discrimination lawsuit by Black farmers for $1.15 billion, which USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack at the time called an end to a "sordid chapter in USDA history."

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According to the USDA's latest farm census, only about one in 100 farmers is Black, and a plan to provide debt relief to Black farmers remains in limbo because of lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program is unfair.

Cosby, who is Black, said that under the Biden-Harris administration and with Vilsack, a focal point for the agencies within USDA has been to broaden efforts to address inequality. The NRCS, with a long list of conservation programs, is one of those agencies.

"The key thing here is we want to make sure people understand there's a level playing field, and we want to make sure that they know about the programs," said Cosby. "And if you're interested, come in, and we're going to treat you with dignity and respect, and we're going to work with you very closely to see and help with the resource needs that you may have on farms."

That goes for all types of operations, said Cosby.

"We're talking urban as well as rural, because we have a lot of folks in urban areas now that are that are farming, and growing fruits and vegetables," he said.

Cosby grew up on his family's cotton farm and attended a land grant university — which he said prepared him to serve the underserved producers across the country. Cosby's great-grandfather purchased the family farm in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, in the late 1800s, and Cosby graduated from Alcorn State University in Alcorn, Mississippi, the nation’s first Black land grant college.

On his family's cotton farm in northern Mississippi, Cosby witnessed his family struggle years just to farm, because he said they didn't have the proper resources to be successful.

"So in the '70s, my dad decided that something that his grandfather did, and his father did, and what he was doing — that he had to give it up," said Cosby. "So for me, after I watched that, and then coming to work for the USDA when I was 17 years old and now being the chief of this agency, I see a way for me to make a difference here."

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Cosby called the USDA's recently announced $50 million investment for NRCS to expand access to conservation assistance for historically underserved producers "really important."

"What we're trying to do is make sure that anyone that wants to participate in these programs has an opportunity to do so," he said.

The investment, which broadens access to conservation assistance to farmers who are new to farming, low income, socially disadvantaged or military veterans, is the biggest to date for the NRCS, said Cosby.

"Especially when we're talking about our reach, and trying to make sure we get the word out about these programs, it's the biggest investment since I've been working with agency for 42 years," said Cosby.

The reach of NRCS will help the assistance programming reach the producers that need it the most, said Cosby.

The $50 million investment will fund two-year projects for producers previously overlooked, and Cosby said the large reach of NRCS will help to reach those farmers.

"We're going to work with 118 different entities out there across the country, to go into these communities and talk about these programs and how they can benefit folks," said Cosby. "How these programs help you to stay on the land — how these programs can help with your resource issues and needs."

The investment package comes after the country has seen significant changes in weather patterns, said Cosby, which he said is crucial for the NRCS to address as well as pollution.

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"We see the devastation from erosion on roads and bridges and also to homes and communities," said Cosby. "And so as we look at these conservation practices, I think we have part of the key to mitigate some of the things that are happening around the country, especially when we talk about carbon and greenhouse gasses."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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