Joby Youn, who served as chief of staff to former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, went on to work for the American Farm Bureau Federation (USDA photo by Lance Cheung).
This story originally appeared in Investigate Midwest.
In the weeks prior to leaving his role as U.S. Department of Agriculture chief of staff in January 2021, Joby Young received emails from lobbyists with links to private-industry jobs with titles like “director of government relations,” “project manager, environmental stewardship” and “director of crop insurance.”
Private-sector job openings were circulating among some of the agriculture industry’s most powerful players in Washington, D.C. — the American Farm Bureau Federation, agribusiness lobbyists and USDA’s Young — as the federal government prepared to transition from the Trump-appointed staff to the Biden administration.
Frequently copied on Young’s emails was Dale Moore, executive vice president of AFBF, the agriculture industry’s largest lobbying group.
In July 2022, Moore retired and Young took over as AFBF executive vice president following a stint at a consulting firm.
Reporting and more than 100 pages of emails obtained by Investigate Midwest via a public records request shed light on the movement of agriculture policy leaders between government, industry and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Moore also previously served as the USDA chief of staff from 2001 to 2009, among other government roles.
While Moore worked for AFBF and Young was USDA chief of staff, the two often ended up on the same email chains and sometimes emailed directly.
When Young left his post at the USDA, he sent a thank-you letter to agriculture industry leaders, lawmakers, USDA staff and lobbyists, including Moore.
“Chief, thank you so very much,” Moore responded. “You are a champion and I so appreciate your leadership and shepherding of the team at USDA under Sec. Perdue. Well done Brother!”
Terri Moore, vice president of communications for AFBF, said Dale Moore and Sam Kieffer, the organization’s top lobbyist, likely had communication with Joby during his time at USDA. She added that now AFBF is in contact with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff, who took office under the Biden administration.
“I think most people who work in agriculture are generally familiar with the Farm Bureau,” Terri Moore said.
AFBF did not make Young available for an interview after repeated requests. USDA did not respond to requests for comment.
While Dale Moore told Investigate Midwest that he and other agricultural leaders do not allow previous employers to impact their decision-making in government roles, some groups like the Revolving Door Project oppose the movement of people between private industry and regulating agencies.
Dale Moore was copied on many of the job listings sent to Young at the end of his tenure. As AFBF vice president, Moore said he embraced his role as someone who could connect people to jobs in the industry.
In an email to Young, Dale Moore and other agriculture lobbyists, lobbyist Michael Torrey, whose clients include Louis Dreyfus, Wayne Farms, Whole Foods, and the American Beverage Association, sent an opening for an executive position at an insurance company.
“Thank you. I know we had one of our folks from (USDA’s Risk Management Agency) who had looked at it,” Young replied. “I’ll check with the rest of the team for interest. Really appreciate you guys.”
Terri Moore, the AFBF spokesperson, said that when presidential administrations change, political appointees from the USDA are left looking for new jobs, and their replacements have to be found. Political appointments come with an assumed end date, which is whenever the administration turns over, she said.
“One of the expectations across the federal government is that when that end date comes, ahead of it, hopefully someone is helping you find what that next step is,” Terri Moore said. “So sharing news of open positions is not only standard practice, but I think expected for political appointees.”
Investigate Midwest found records of several federal government appointees with Farm Bureau ties, ranging from former state Farm Bureau presidents to state lawmakers who received awards or endorsements from the organization.
Seventeen current state directors of the USDA’s Farm Services Agency have a connection to the AFBF or its state and local counterparts, Investigate Midwest found in an analysis of FSA director bios, social media accounts and news clips. Under the Trump administration, 16 state FSA directors had a Farm Bureau connection before being appointed.
In one instance, AFBF’s top lobbyist emailed the current USDA chief of staff, Katharine Ferguson, with a request. He asked the agency to appoint Bob Andrzeczak, a former New Jersey state senator, to lead the state’s Farm Services Agency.
The Biden administration listened. Andrzeczak became New Jersey FSA director in February 2022.
The FSA is the division of the USDA responsible for administering the agency’s programs, including farm loans, emergency relief and conservation.
Outside of the FSA, Investigate Midwest identified additional current and former federal officials with AFBF ties.
Kristi Boswell served as a White House advisor to President Trump after a stint as the AFBF’s head lobbyist. She now practices law, advising food and agriculture companies on regulatory and legislative topics, according to her professional biography.
Economist John Newton worked for the dairy industry and AFBF before joining the staff of Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Boswell and Newton did not respond to requests for comment.
Federal and state AFBF leaders also hold seats on the USDA’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee and four of the agency’s six Agricultural Technical Advisory Committees. These committees, dominated by industry leaders, advise the secretary of agriculture on trade policy.
Dale Moore said AFBF takes pride in developing its members into leaders — and good job candidates — through the organization’s political advocacy programs.
With county, state and federal boards and committees, thousands of members hold positions in leadership. The organization’s advocacy program teaches members how to lobby for policy change.
Farm Bureau members, earlier this year, described to Investigate Midwest the process of joining the county Farm Bureau, then moving up to AFBF leadership roles at the state and federal level. But that career advancement was only granted to those who adhered to the organization’s policy positions, not to dissidents within the organization, others said.
“We have folks who are willing to take those leadership positions,” Dale Moore said, “and who have undergone some level of training, not just the experience gleaned from sitting on the board.”
Dale Moore said he often provides referrals for open government positions.
“If you’re looking for somebody who understands agriculture, you’ve got to go to where the agriculturalists are,” Moore said.
Federal employees keep a distance from industry groups and previous employers, he said.
“The thing that is key is being able to recognize, I have accepted the duties and responsibility of the position, the office, the thing I’m beholden to,” Moore said. “And I have to set aside whatever else — I have to leave that at the door.”
Others have a dimmer view of how federal officials handle conflicts of interest and industry ties, arguing that federal agencies should promote career employees instead of sourcing appointees from industry groups.
“We really need to move more towards a system where we’re not just trusting people’s own attestation that they’re going to do the right thing and they’re not going to allow their past work to influence their current work in government at all,” said Eleanor Eagan, research director of the governance team at the Revolving Door Project, which researches federal political appointees’ corporate and lobbying ties.
The AFBF is not only a lobbying organization. It’s also an insurance company and a wide-reaching grassroots organization with thousands of county chapters around the U.S.
We really need to move more towards a system where we’re not just trusting people’s own attestation that they’re going to do the right thing and they’re not going to allow their past work to influence their current work in government at all.
– Eleanor Eagan, research director of the governance team at the Revolving Door Project
And while the organization claims to be the “Voice of Agriculture,” some inside and outside the organization say it doesn’t represent everyone.
The AFBF Policy Book outlines the organization’s policy goals, and directs the group’s lobbying at the federal, state and local level. It not only addresses a number of agriculture issues, but also includes positions on non-agriculture topics including opposition to same-sex marriage, affirmative action and multilingual ballots in elections.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, said some of the group’s non-agriculture viewpoints are cause for concern.
“It’s fair to ask why an organization that espouses some of the most extreme views in America should have a say over farm policy,” he said.
AFBF isn’t unusual in its role as a source of government leaders.
The phenomena of people moving between private industry and government work is common across all industries and can have some benefits when it comes to policy making, said Josh McCrain, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, who studies the “revolving door.”
“If we’re getting into really particular regulatory environments that revolve around a lot of specific expertise around something like agriculture policy, there’s really not another option outside of government for these people than industry,” McCrain said.
The promise of industry jobs, which often pay significantly more than those in government, after a stint in a federal agency provides an incentive for smart, accomplished people to join federal agencies, he said.
“They’re willing to take that salary hit,” McCrain said, “because there is eventually a way for it to pay off at the end when they leave government and use their expertise and actually make the money that they’re worth.”
Investigate Midwest reporters Aruni Soni and Mary Norkol contributed reporting to this article.
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