USDA official makes quick transition back to Sumner farm in Nebraska
SUMNER, Neb. — Greg Ibach’s three-plus years as U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs in Washington, D.C., ended at 11:59 a.m. Jan 20.
It was inauguration day for President Joe Biden.
“I had to be out of the building by 12 noon,” Ibach told the Kearney Hub. “That’s not unusual, but it was interesting to see how regimented they were.”
His last day in his USDA office was the previous Friday, Jan. 15, because getting there was becoming almost impossible. Fences were built and other security measure were ramped up for the approaching inauguration and in response to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol after a rally for then-President Donald Trump.
Ibach and his wife, Teresa, came home to their Sumner farm on Jan. 16.
Another reason for the slightly early departure was that Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, was the following Monday, “so you only had Tuesday (left) and no one could get there (USDA) by then,” Ibach said.
He was at his USDA office all day on Jan 6. Ibach said Teresa and several friends were sightseeing and their route took them past the rally by Trump supporters at about the time the former president was speaking. The sightseers had continued their Washington tour before some rally attendees headed to the Capitol.
Ibach said they didn’t have a car in Washington. Their apartment six blocks east of the Capitol was a block away from a Metro system stop. Four stops later, he would exit at the Smithsonian station near the USDA building.
“It was a very convenient place to live,” Ibach said, noting that the neighborhood also had nearby stores and restaurants.
Early in his USDA tenure, Teresa equally split her time in Washington and at the farm. Ibach said she was home more in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and because their first two grandchildren were born in August and December.
He worked from his farm office throughout April and May, but handling many “emergency things” for USDA and state ag agencies meant there was almost no time for farm work.
While serving as undersecretary, Ibach had to step away from day-to-day management of the family farm and any marketing decisions.
Management of the mostly Angus cattle and crops — corn and soybeans for cash markets, and silage corn, hay and forage sorghum as cattle feed — is in the hands of his son Alec of Kearney, who also sells Channel seed with partner Nate Hartman through their Apache Ag business.
The Ibach family also relies on two longtime farm employees, foreman Riley Jones and Bob Bartos, and intern Brock Braden to keep day-to-day operations going.
Ibach’s other son, Evan, works in the pet products division of Scoular Company in Omaha and helps with some farm commodity marketing.
Emily, the third triplet, is director of state and local government affairs in Kansas and Missouri for Hy-Vee’s Kansas City, Mo., office.
“I’m not planning on coming in here and diminish what they’ve done on the farm,” Ibach said. However, he looks forward to helping with harvest and working cattle that are raised in an all-natural, non-hormone environment, and sold to Nebraska feeders who focus on value-added markets in Europe, Japan and the United States.
“There are different times when everyone wants to be back, including me,” Ibach said. “The (high-tech) equipment has changed though ... I need to have more basic jobs. I don’t want to jump in the combine now.”
He smiled and said the day-to-day farm crew doesn’t want him doing that either.
Ibach’s first step toward becoming a USDA undersecretary was in September 2016 when he hosted the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture annual meeting in Lincoln as association president.
He was asked if it was OK to put his name on a list of potential nominees — Democrats and Republicans — for appointed positions at USDA after the November presidential election.
That listing led to a late December 2016 initial contact by Trump Administration representatives and more conversations after the January 2017 inauguration.
Ibach said he was offered the undersecretary position by Sonny Perdue on the day the former Georgia governor became secretary of agriculture. Perdue was confirmed by the Senate on April 24 and sworn in the next day.
Trump’s nomination of Ibach was sent to the Senate on the Friday before Labor Day. “I just kept doing my job (as state ag director) as I was supposed to,” Ibach said about the time between his nomination and Oct. 30, 2017, confirmation.
One part of the approval process was an FBI background check. “I required a top secret FBI security clearance,” Ibach said Monday at his farm office. “I know I can’t take it with me to another job. I suppose it’s no longer in effect.”
He was sworn into office by Perdue on Nov. 6, 2017, at south Omaha’s historic Livestock Exchange Building.
He worked with federal officials and programs during his tenure as Nebraska’s longest-serving ag director, so Ibach knew a lot about the agencies he would oversee and other responsibilities of his new job when he walked through the door of his USDA office.
“There probably wasn’t anything like a typical day. We were always reacting to something,” he said, using reviews of plant or animal materials people wanted to bring into the United States as an example. “... The biggest demand was on plant and animal health in the U.S., and keeping disease out.”
The programs he oversaw also grade livestock, eggs, grains and cotton; are responsible for commodity checkoff programs; trace animal diseases; and update biotech regulations for plants and farm animals as advances related to genetic traits are made.
Ibach said that when GMO crops first were introduced, one mistake was talking a lot about farmers’ benefits, but not enough about consumers’ benefits. So as similar technologies are used to produce animals with greater disease resistance, the message must be how they make things better for farmers and animals.
“Healthy animals are perceived to be raised more humanely,” Ibach added, and the advances help address consumer demand for less use of antibiotics.
Work not anticipated when he took office included trade mitigation efforts, particularly related to U.S.-China conflicts, and 2020 food projects and other ag-related assistance programs launched in response to the pandemic.
One was the Farmers to Families Food Box Program to help ag producers, especially those with fresh produce, find markets during a COVID-related farm-to-table distribution system breakdown and to meet food needs across the country.
It was the responsibility of the Agricultural Marketing Service, an agency Ibach oversaw, to approve contracts with farmers, distributors such as Kearney’s Cash-Wa Distributing and other entities qualified to identify food sources, pack food boxes and distribute them.
Ibach said it took 30 days to devise a solution to the food distribution issues, announce the Food Box program and secure contracts. Within a week later, food was moving to families. That first round was May 15-June 30.
“That’s unheard of. That’s incredible,” he said about the speed at which that was accomplished.
On Jan. 4, Perdue announced the program’s fifth round with food purchases worth $1.5 billion. Ibach said it was the last during his tenure as undersecretary.
Another COVID-19 issue was limited international travel.
Ibach went to Japan, Europe and Colombia for animal health meetings, but had made far more foreign trips as state ag director to promote Nebraska exports. Yet, his USDA airline miles were approximately 50% higher because of many domestic flights to attend ag commodity meetings.
“I definitely missed out on some of the community events I enjoyed in the past ... and state events,” Ibach said, although he did come home for most major holidays and attended the Sumner Rodeo last July 4.
While in Washington, he often caught up with fellow ag producers who came to promote issues on behalf of Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen, the Nebraska Corn Growers Association and other organizations.
“I accepted that there would be a little bit of difference in lifestyle when you live in the middle of Washington, D.C.,” Ibach said about his temporary time away from the rural Nebraska community where seven generations of his family have lived. “We embraced the lifestyle difference.”