Terry Cosby, the new chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and former state conservationist for Ohio, has worked with the NRCS for more than 40 years.
In that time, he’s held many different roles in many states. Not all were glamorous, or easy. But he stayed with the department for the same reasons he initially joined.
“I saw my dad struggle as a Black farmer, and part of that was that he couldn’t get help from the USDA,” Cosby said.
Cosby comes from a long line of farmers. He grew up on a cotton farm in northern Mississippi, which his great-grandfather bought in the late 1800s. Cosby’s great-great-grandfather was a slave in the south, he said. All of that family history contributed to his decision to work with the NRCS.
“I wanted to make sure that we served anyone, no matter what they looked like,” Cosby said. “We need to provide that service. Every taxpayer deserves what USDA has to offer.”
Cosby started with the USDA through the department’s student experience program, while he was still studying at Alcorn State University, in Mississippi. That program guaranteed him a position within the NRCS once he graduated. He spent his first 15 years in Iowa.
It wasn’t always easy. Iowa was a long way from home, and very different from Mississippi. Starting pay was low. But Cosby stuck it out and slowly worked his way up to be a resource conservationist, then a district conservationist covering most of southwest Iowa.
Since then, he has served in multiple roles, including as an assistant state conservationist for field operations in Missouri, a deputy state conservationist in Idaho and, most recently, as Ohio’s state conservationist for the last 16 years.
Cosby believes his work in various states has prepared him for this new, national role. Working with commodity groups and other organizations in Ohio has helped him understand the state’s needs. But though different states may have slightly different focuses, the overall needs tend to be similar.
“It might be a different resource concern, or landscape, but it all boils down to the same issues,” Cosby said.
Cosby isn’t the only conservationist in his family. Two out of his eight siblings also spent their careers with the NRCS. One older brother was the state conservationist in Wisconsin and Georgia. Another older brother was the assistant state conservationist for Iowa.
“Dad was all proud of us,” Cosby said. “We worked for the service and had all this book knowledge … we would go home and try to tell him how to farm … he’d say, ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time; you guys just leave me alone.’”
One of Cosby’s proudest achievements so far is the high tunnel initiative, in Cleveland. That program, first launched as a pilot in 2012, allows NRCS to use the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help people who grow food, in Cleveland, buy high tunnels. Since then, the initiative has spread to other cities. Cosby hopes to repeat that work across the country.
“It’s great to be on the ground there and just walk in those communities to see just how a small amount of help really changes the community,” he said. “People are out talking to each other, working together, watching out for each other. We’ve seen this become very positive.”
Work on forestry in southeastern Ohio is also a highlight for Cosby. He helped start an interagency forestry team in Ohio that works with landowners on forest management.
“That is also a great community that we have, and that’s a resource that we need to preserve and protect,” he said.
The relationship the NRCS has with the university system in Ohio has been a big help across many different projects and efforts, he said.
“It’s just been a great partnership with all the folks here,” Cosby said. “We’re pretty unique in Ohio, the way things work and how we pull together.”
As he takes on his new role as chief of the NRCS, Cosby stressed that the NRCS has a lot to offer when it comes to accomplishing goals set by USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and the Biden Administration.
“We have been a trusted partner with the farmer over the history of the agency,” Cosby said. “We have a proven record.”
Cosby noted the majority of the land in the U.S. is privately owned. The NRCS works with a lot of private landowners, and he believes those relationships and agency’s programs will allow it to help the U.S. meet climate goals.
Racial equity is another major focus for the USDA. Cosby emphasized the importance of making sure that NRCS services are available to all who need them.
He also believes there are opportunities to keep addressing food access challenges through urban agriculture and education.
Many people who now live in cities are descended from farmers, and many never lost that love for farming, Cosby said. He wants to encourage and help people to grow food locally in backyards and green spaces, and to learn how to preserve and cook or eat the food they grow.
But the main message Cosby wants to give his team across the U.S. is that the agency is here to help anyone who wants to use its services.
“We are the can-do agency. We have an expertise that a lot of folks don’t have,” he said. “Get out there and spread it, and take care of our country.”
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