Senate confirms USDA deputy secretary; Vilsack names undersecretaries

by Charles H. Featherstone
| June 18, 2021 1:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a sign the new leadership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking shape, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack congratulated Jewel Bronaugh following her confirmation as deputy USDA secretary by the U.S. Senate on May 13 and named two under secretaries.

“Bronaugh’s confirmation is historic, as she will serve as the first Black woman and woman of color to serve as deputy secretary,” Vilsack said in a statement. “She speaks respectfully of producers and rural Americans, and believes that as a public servant, her job is to find a way to help those who need it. I look forward to working with Dr. Bronaugh to ensure USDA lives up to its calling as the ‘People’s Department,’ to be a department that serves all people equally and fairly.”

Bronaugh most recently served as the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, having been named to that post in 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam. Prior to that, she served as the executive director in Virginia for USDA’s Farm Service Agency and before that as the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University and an administrator of agricultural extension services and a 4-H extension specialist.

Bronaugh received her Ph.D. in Career and Technical Education from Virginia Tech and hails from Petersburg, Virginia. She is married to Cleavon, a retired United States Army Veteran, and the couple have four adult children.

In a separate announcement, Vilsack also named Meryl Harrell as Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) and the appointment of Terry Cosby as Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). They began their positions on May 24.

Meryl Harrell most recently served as the Executive Director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. She has also served as a consultant, advising non-profits, foundations, and government agencies working to conserve America’s public and private working lands. During the Obama-Biden Administration, Harrell spent eight years in the Office of Natural Resources and Environment at USDA, including serving as Chief of Staff and then Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary. Harrell previously worked on public lands issues at The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C.

Harrell received her law degree from Yale Law School, where she studied environmental law, and graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in geosciences and environmental studies from Princeton University. Originally from New Jersey and more recently based in Atlanta, Georgia, Harrell can often be found out on the trails in our national forests with her husband and two children.

Terry Cosby began his career with USDA in 1979 as a student trainee in Iowa. Cosby was raised on a cotton farm with his eight siblings in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The farm, now in his family for three generations, was purchased by his great-grandfather in the late 1800s. Over Cosby’s 42 years with the agency, he has served in numerous capacities, most recently, Acting Chief of NRCS and State Conservationist for Ohio. Prior to serving as Ohio State Conservationist, he served in leadership positions in Iowa as an Area Resource Conservationist, in Missouri as an Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations and Idaho as a Deputy State Conservationist.

Cosby holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture Education from Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, the first Black land grant college established in the United States, and resides in Ohio with his wife Brenda and their four children.

“The leadership and expertise of Meryl and Terry will play an integral role in USDA’s efforts to provide personnel, science, and technology that will lead to better-informed and more effective land management decisions; partnerships to address climate adaptation, conservation, and ecological resilience; and clean energy technology and infrastructure,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We are fortunate to have them on our team.”