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Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer's Remarks to USDA Employees at a Welcome Reception USDA Headquarters
Washington, D.C., January 29, 2008
SEC. ED SCHAFER: Thank you, Chuck. Thank you for the kind intro and thank you for the warm welcome! It's great to finally stand here and say "hi" this morning. It is just a terrific honor to be introduced by Chuck Conner. I had a chance to work with him over the past few months. I've been patiently waiting for my confirmation to work with Chuck in briefings and find out about him...It is indeed an honor to follow in the footsteps of Chuck Conner.
Chuck, I want you to know that if I ever get into certain situations, I hope that I can carry on with the honor and the dignity and the character that you have demonstrated. Thank you.
Speaking of which, I have to tell you, this morning I got here a little early, and I was sitting in-again-the very first briefing I had, I was sitting around the conference table in the Secretary's office, which was kind of awesome in the first place. And I looked out the window and there was a gaggle of geese flying. Are they are gaggles if they're in the air or just on the ground? I'm not sure. But it was a flock of geese that were flying in the air in a "V" formation. And I was sitting there with Chuck, and I was looking out the window. And I was thinking: You know, geese fly with a lead animal or a lead bird out in front, and it breaks wind. And those following behind move forward. And sometimes when that lead bird gets tired, they fly out of the formation and come back in, and another bird flies up to the front to break the wind again.
And so I'm now going to be breaking the wind for Chuck.
As he comes back into the formation, and as we fly forward. That was my vision this morning.
It was kind of profound. But speaking of following in his footsteps, I am very pleased to have at my side as always today my loving and wonderfully supportive spouse, Nancy Schafer. I'd like to ask her to come forward and make a few comments now as well.
MRS. SCHAFER: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. I have to say that it's thrilling, and it is a tremendous honor, and it's very humbling to be here and greet all of you this afternoon. If my father were living today, I could just imagine that he would truly be busting his buttons, he would be so proud to know that his son-in-law is now the Secretary of Agriculture.
My family heritage is deeply rooted in agriculture. My father grew up, he actually was born and died on the land that his parents and grandparents homesteaded when they moved, when they immigrated from Germany to Montana back in the 1900s. I am very proud to be a product of that environment, to be a product of rural agriculture, and to have that type of upbringing.
I was raised on that family farm and ranch. It's land that no one else has ever owned. It's land that my older brother still farms today.
For the first nine years of my life I lived in a very tiny, three-room house. We had no indoor plumbing, and the sofa was my bed. My older brothers and I entertained ourselves by our creativity and our ingenuity. We could imagine all sorts of things. We would go out in the lumber, pile them and build forts; or maybe we'd go out in the machine lot and the old threshing machine or the tractor-pulled combine or the binder would be our fortresses. Or on really hot days we would resort to swimming in the cow tank. Life was good on the farm, really!
I loved it. And then when we were old enough we learned the value-we were taught by a hard day's work. My dad expected and my mother expected us to pull our own weight on the farm. And so it was not unusual for us to be out pulling rocks or pulling weeds or shocking oat bundles, or sometimes we were expected to go help herd cattle. And as we got older the responsibilities increased.
We learned discipline, and we learned commitment to purpose.
My father's love of the land was very contagious. It was through him that I developed a very deep respect for the land and a work ethic that really has helped to define who I am as a person today. I will always and forever be very proud of the upbringing that I had in rural America.
My journey here today began on the family farm, and when I married Ed Schafer just two days after he was elected or began serving as the 30th governor of the great state of North Dakota, his passions became mine and my passions became his. And together we're very eager to work together to further the agricultural community in the United States of America.
I thank all of you for what you do to promote the USDA department, for your commitment and for your hard efforts. And we just look forward to meeting all of you, as many of you as we can in the year to come. Thank you.
SEC. SCHAFER: Now you know what most North Dakotans do, is that I walk in Nancy's shadow.
Actually, Chuck just mentioned when we were standing there when Nancy was talking about the transition, we were actually, we got engaged about nine days before the election when I was running for governor. Nancy claims that's what got us over the top. You know?
I thought I'd lost about 5,000 votes. (laughs)
But we did get over the top, and it was great to build our lives in public service together, and have those passions back and forth. And one of the passions certainly is agriculture. And Nancy talked a little bit about her passion, and Chuck whispered in my ear too, that transition-you got married a couple days after you got in office, you had a new job, Nancy had a new job, we had a new residence. We had a new family: we had 640,000 members of our family, the citizens of North Dakota. But we had a new church, a new community, and you know everything was new. And that transition makes this one seem like not too bad.
But as we do talk about that history it is fun to see our passions develop. And I have to tell you, and some of you have heard it at the hearing because I made the comments about where I got started in this whole deal. And it was a shipbuilder, a shipbuilder from Denmark, who in 1902 arrived on the shores of this country who had 7 cents in his pocket, the clothes he had on his back, and this very ring that he wore. He found his way out to the prairies, the often unrelenting prairies of North Dakota, and homesteaded a quarter section of land. And that shipbuilder didn't go there to build ships; he went to make a new life for himself in this free country and have the opportunities and to just carve out a new space for him and his family.
As he did so, he not only became a member of the community-he learned how to farm. Actually the shipbuilding experience was really good because when he found out he needed a barn, he built one, and it looked a lot like an upside down boat.
And I have the picture upstairs if you want to come see it. (laughs)
But as he became a member of this society, as he gained his citizenship, at 19 years old enrolled himself in the first grade so he could learn to speak English. And he carved the land with his hands, and he raised a family and became active in the community, and active politically, and he gave land to the school. And all those issues became embedded in me as I had a chance to grow up in a family that meant, that learned what the rural agriculture, what the agrarian economy means to us. And I really meant it when I said in my hearing that the cornerstones of integrity and character and hard work and truth and honesty and hardihood are what we develop. And those are the cornerstones that hold up the United States of America today.
And I firmly believe they come from that place of touching the land. And that's really what we have the opportunity to do here at the United States Department of Agriculture is, touch the land. We touch the people of the land in many different ways, in a broad range in this agency. And that is exciting to me to stand here today to talk to you about delivering that mission of the USDA.
You know, I've been kind of struggling with the title of Secretary of Agriculture. We've already had some discussions up in the cage about what to call me. And you know, it is interesting that when I was governor of course a lot of people called me "Governor." They said things behind my back too (laughs). But, you know, a lot of people called me Governor, and some people called me other names, and you know we went through the process. And then I became a former governor, and then people really didn't know what to call me. I mean, was it "Past Governor" or "Ex Governor" or "Former Governor" - a lot of other things. But they weren't sure. As a matter of fact, I was introduced one time as the former Ed Schafer.
I'm really not sure what that was all about. But I find it better than when my mom insists on introducing me these days, which is the Late Governor Schafer.
So I'm really glad to be here today alive and well. But you know, I want to be called Ed-not Mr. Secretary, not Governor, not any of those other things, but I want to be called Ed. And let me tell you why.
When I started this process not too long ago I found out over and over again about the USDA. I've known about the agency as governor; I worked with the agency; we interacted a lot with various sections and departments. We had a lot of things going on. But as I went through this process, everywhere I went people said, "You know, that's just the best-run agency. They have the best employees, the most mature staff, the most committed, the hardest-working."
Those are the people that operate the United States Department of Agriculture. And they deliver the programs to the farmers and ranchers and landowners and the poor and the needy across this country. And I want to be a part of that.
You are the basis for that, you're the key, you're the people that make it happen. And I want to stand beside you as your partner in this deal. You know, my philosophy comes back to Teddy Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt, we claimed [him] in North Dakota as a native son. To be honest he wasn't born there, but he did say, "Had it not been for my life living and working in North Dakota I would never have been president of the United States."
And I believe that because it was there that he learned how to work. He came out to North Dakota as a sickly individual; his mother and his wife had died on the same day. He got training, just headed west, landed there, and he learned there to heal his soul. He learned how to work; he learned frontier justice and honesty, integrity and a hard day's work for a hard day's pay.
But he also learned how to get things done. Teddy Roosevelt is the guy that got things done! And he talked a lot about how you do that. I was telling some of the folks this morning that when he was confronted with the completion of the Panama Canal, which is on its face an impossible task, they said, "How can you get something like that done?" And Teddy Roosevelt said, "You know it's really not that hard if you put the right people in place and you let them know what you want them to do and stand out of their way so they can get the job done. It will get done."
And that's the philosophy that I carry to you today. I'm looking forward to learning about you and why you're the right person in place, and then delivering that common mission of the USDA, getting the job done. But I'll stand out of the way and let you work. And to do that, we have to develop a team.
And I'm excited about the team. I talk about teams a lot, and the reason that I kind of go by "Ed" is because I want to join your team. I was thinking about an orchestra today. Nancy is a musician, and she's tried to lead me into the cultural arts some. I haven't been very successful. (laughs) But I try. But you know, sometimes, have you ever heard somebody practicing the oboe? It's not a real pleasant sound. Sometimes a violin in practice can get a little screechy and things. And there are various pieces of the orchestra. But when the maestro stands there and the orchestra comes together and they all play their part, beautiful music is there to lift the spirit. And really everybody plays a part in that; no matter what size, shape, color and sound and direction, everybody is a piece of that.
I'm culturally challenged. I think of it more as not the orchestra, but a puzzle. You know, you look at piece of the puzzle, it's kind of weird shaped, and different colors and all that. And when you get the piece and you put that last piece in the puzzle, you have the beautiful picture and presentation. And it's every one of the pieces coming together that makes the puzzle happen.
And that is what your team is. It's each individual; it's each of you doing your job to make that puzzle come together to the beautiful picture that it is.
So I want to get to know you. It's easy to say, "Gee, I have an open door policy." Well, everybody has an open door policy. But I want to make sure that happens. It's a joy for me to be here and get to meet some of you today, but I have to tell you-I mean, if I'm in your place of work, for those of you who are out there watching us over streaming video, if I'm in your place of work don't be bashful. I mean, come up and introduce yourself. I want to know about you and to hear about your family and your history and your stories and, most importantly, your passions about getting the job done.
So please do that if I'm around. Please come and introduce yourself and just take a minute to chat because I want to know. If you're here at headquarters, I can't promise that I'm always going to be available, but if you're here stop in and say "hi". If nothing else, at least I can wave at you through the glass up there.
No. But please do because I want to be a part of your team and get it done. And I want to help make that happen. I was thinking, I'm not sure why they call the place the "cage," and I was a little disconcerted this morning when I was first getting the tour of the facilities that I noticed that the private office for the secretary, the lock is on the outside of the door.
I'm not sure what that means. So if you're here and you get up and you don't see me and hear some noise on the other side of the door, come on up. Let me out!
But I do want to get to know you, and I'm looking forward to working beside you because I view my role as a person who helps you do your job. There are often barriers out there to your performance-social and cultural and historical and financial barriers to get things done. And you fight it every day. You know, you're out there all the time, and you're pushing to get things done and complete and to find solutions to the problems that we face. And often there's something in the way. And my role is to get rid of those barriers.
My role is to help you do your job better. And so that if you find something that's in the place in the way that you can't move aside, help you get down, that's what I want to know about because that's my job. My job is to get things out of your way so that you can get your jobs done.
I am very much looking forward to that. I brought along something to demonstrate that to you today. When I was in the Governor's Office in the state capitol-and there was a reference earlier to my junkyard work experience. Growing up with my grandparents, I had seven uncles who were all mechanics. And we (unclear) car engines and airplane engines, and one of the fond memories that I have is we had, one was a little airplane and another built a little car. And we'd get together and race the car and airplane to a spot, and then race back. And it was exciting! Of course, if I did that today I'd probably be breaking about a million laws. [Laughter]
But that's how I learned to fix things. I learned to be a mechanic. I learned to just repair and get things to move. So that's my role. So I brought along my toolkit today.
This was given to me by the staff in the Governor's Office, because I was always fixing things. Not only did I get this toolbox and fix a light that didn't work or shave off a door a little bit so it closed, or you know, whatever needed to be done-and I'm willing to do that here. I like that kind of thing!
But this is why I see my role here as to be "Mr. Fix-It" for you. I'm the one that you need to come to to get things out of your way, to repair, to remove the barriers, to get in a position so that you can deliver your job.
And so I want to thank you all for joining us here today. I really look forward to working with you. It's an exciting time for agriculture, it's an exciting time for the United States, and I believe it's an exciting time for all the 107,000 employees of the USDA.
To close, let me tell you this. The past few months have been a learning process, exciting and stimulating. Just going to all the briefings and all the things that are going on, and trying to retain everything, which is a lot. I have to tell you, that doesn't lend itself to sleeping a lot, and your mind is going on overdrive. So I watch late night TV when I'm trying to calm down, and the other night there was a movie on called Apollo 13, and if you've seen the movie you know they run into some very big problems. We weren't sure if we were going to get the shuttle back, the astronauts back and they were making all these plans and contingencies. At one point in time, the crew at Mission Central, or Astronaut Central-whatever you call it-they were talking about what a disaster this is going to be. They had all these problems and people were going to die, and the shuttle program was going to be scuttled. They were going through the problems that this was going to cause. And I thought, you know, that sometimes is what we feel. We feel like all the things I'm trying to get done, I can't get done. Things are hard. I fight it all the time. Things look bad.
And there was one point in time in the movie where the communications director came up, he was listening off to the side, and the mission control officer was talking to the President or something-and he was standing off to the side, and said: "This is going to be a disaster of unmitigated proportions. This is going to destroy the program." And the director overheard it and he walked over, and he said, "No, I think this is going to be our finest hour." And it was, because they came back and the astronauts were saved.
I want you to know that as I look at my short term at the agency and I get to build a working relationship with you on this team, that I think this is going to be our finest hour. Thank you.