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McKinney’s Path to USDA Under Secretary


McKinney’s Path to USDA Under Secretary Full InterviewOne of Indiana’s own is in Washington, D.C. (when he’s not traveling the world) to advocate for free and fair trade for U.S. farmers.

USDA Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney grew up on his family farm in Tipton, Indiana. He says that he and his twin brother, Tom, were blessed with wonderful parents.

“Though there was always work to do on the farm, (they) never, ever, ever, let farm get in the way of us enjoying a good high school career… football, Little League baseball, always 4-H and FFA, and countless other things. So, we were very involved in school.”

And that continued at his beloved alma mater, Purdue University, where he even served as Purdue Pete.

“Boy, talk about a place that let you spread your wings… some say I majored in activities, not in ag econ, though it was both. I can attest to that.”

McKinney says his plan was all laid out for life after Purdue.

“My twin brother and I were both going to go back and farm. We both studied ag econ. I minored in agronomy thinking I would have crops. He minored in animal sciences thinking he would have livestock and that was our plan.”

But, in his senior year, he realized that you can much more easily go back to the farm from the corporate world than you can go from the farm to the corporate world.

“So, I said I’m just going to dip my toe in the corporate world, and I’ll be darned, I kind of liked it. And, frankly, Tom is an outstanding farmer, so is dad, mom, and Karen (Tom’s wife). So, they didn’t need me there. There’s enough help there, and so I created my own path and have loved every minute of it. But I tell you, I never, ever thought something like this would come along. Never on my radar.”

That led to jobs with Dow Agrosciences and Elanco in government public affairs, but he knew that at some point in his life, he wanted to do public service and that probably meant something in government.

“That’s just part of my DNA, there’s a heart for public service and giving back, but it was out there as an unknown. What would it look like? I had no idea.”

He says it was not one, but two, calls from then-Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann and then-Governor Mike Pence in 2013 asking him to take over as director of the Indiana State Dept. of Agriculture.

“Then, a lot of prayer because it was an enormous pay cut. But, boy, when we went there, it was the job of a lifetime. Sue Ellspermann and, later, Suzanne Crouch as lieutenant governors were terrific. Governor Pence was to die for. Governor Holcomb is one of the best of the best. It was a great job and, once again, I was going to retire there. I was happy as a clam.”

But we all know the story didn’t end there.

“I’ll be darned if this thing didn’t happen with Trump, and him pulling Pence up, and having known Secretary Purdue as a governor a little bit… I’m very blessed.”

Now, as USDA Under Secretary for Trade, his job is to promote free and fair trade of ag products and increase international market demand for US farmers. His passport is a bit tattered and torn from all the travel since his confirmation.

“I’ve lost track. I think it’s been now 26 countries since October of 2017. Several of them (I’ve visited) twice, a couple of them three times, and two of them four times now.”

He says there is a lot to be said about simply showing up.

“To farmers, that’s logical. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be belly-to-belly with the customer, and particularly when you go back a second time, they know you’re serious.

In his quest to reach 1 million air miles, he said he thinks he’s somewhere around 400,000. That does not include his trips back to Indiana to visit family and friends.

McKinney told Hoosier Ag Today that he loves what he’s doing and that he’s working hard for all of the farmers and ranchers of the United States that he knows have been struggling.

“People should know that I’ll make calls back to farmers across the country, including Indiana, at least 3 times a week. Usually it’s in the evening on the way home just to touch base and stay grounded, because it is easy to get caught in the Washington, D.C. bubble. I vowed I would never let that happen, so I’m working hard to avoid that.”

USDA has already scheduled seven ag trade missions for 2020 to be led by McKinney. The missions include trips to North Africa, the Phillippines, Spain and Portugal, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates.