As the third youngest of four siblings, Karla Thieman, says her favorite chore growing up on her family’s farm in Concordia, Mo., came during calving season. Family members would take shifts getting up very early on cold mornings in February or March to check on the cows that were calving. “There was always this sense of excitement of potentially finding a new baby calf, and the person who found the calf or pulled the calf would get to name the calf so, that was always a very special honor.”
Her least favorite chore was walking the fields in the spring to deal with thistle. “It was usually a hot, sweaty chore. I tell you, they never go away … once you think you’ve tackled them all and then the next year they’ve quadrupled.” She also grew up showing cattle. “It gave me a healthy sense of competitiveness. I’m a slightly type-A personality, which … being in DC is definitely helpful.”
She says both her work ethic and competitiveness are necessary in her new position as chief of staff for the Department of Agriculture, one of the largest federal agencies with 99,000 employees. Thieman’s responsibilities include overseeing the daily contact between the department’s top staff members and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Along with determining who meets with Vilsack and just how many events she can squeeze onto his schedule, she also makes policy recommendations.
Thieman says she came to Washington, D.C., “interested in more of the bread and butter issues” of agriculture, focused mostly on production and livestock, but she says the breadth of everything the department deals with makes her job both challenging and interesting. “USDA does so much more, from building hospitals in rural communities, to the nutrition programs, supporting the bio-based economy, biofuels. etc. So, I’ve had this great opportunity to learn about the reach that USDA has on rural America.”
In addition to learning the value of hard work and competition, Thieman says another benefit of growing up on her family’s farm came in learning creativity and independence. The 31 year old says that before she and her sister were old enough to help on the farm, they would let their imaginations run wild: “There was no sort of helicopter parenting over the two of us and I think that has served both of us well.”
Children, slugs and farm life benefits
With a growing number of Americans moving to cities, Thieman says parents in rural Missouri may find it hard to believe that their city counterparts are actually paying “to send their children to a farm to learn about how food is grown and agriculture.” She says about a month ago, she visited a “farm camp” in Northern Virginia. “It was so great to see all of these young kids from inside D.C., who were running around. One of them had found a giant slug and they were all just squealing with delight.” She says those are the kind of experiences kids in rural American have everyday, but their families may not truly appreciate. She says the fact that city parents are paying for their children to attend farm-camps “speaks a lot to the values and experiences that you get on a farm.”
Challenges for agriculture
Thieman told St. Louis Public Radio that agriculture in rural America is facing big challenges. “I think one of the biggest questions we all think about is where our next generation of farmers is going to come from. How do we find those people that are going to feed the 9 billion mouths that we have to feed by 2050.” She says that’s “one of the big, burning issues” facing the department, “and we’re trying to change programs that make agriculture more attractive to young people, to veterans, to women, and I think that’s probably one of the most impactful things that we’ll be able to do” in the remaining time of the Obama administration.
Since being named to her new position, Thieman says, she’s heard from “lots of folks” including, former college classmates and the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri, where she earned a degree in agricultural economics. All pretty heady stuff for someone who grew up in a town with a current population of about 2,500. Concordia sits along I-70 in Lafayette County about half way between Columbia and Kansas City. Thieman says anyone who’s traveled that stretch of highway has actually driven over the Thieman family farm, which is now run by one of her cousins.
Before joining the Department of Agriculture last year, Thieman served for several years as a staff member on the Senate Agricultural Committee.