Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - For nearly four years, I. Miley Gonzalez basked in the public limelight as a top Washington, D.C. power broker. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for research, education and economics, he oversaw four major agencies with a total budget of nearly $2.2 billion, supervised a staff of almost 10,000 employees, and hopped around the globe with President Clinton and top officials.
With the White House in new hands, Gonzalez has returned to Las Cruces. He is associate dean of New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, the college's research arm.
"It's terrific to be back home," said Gonzalez, who was on unpaid leave as the college's associate dean for academic programs while at USDA. "The Washington experience was wonderful, and I do miss some of the excitement of being at the center of issues where decisions have international implications. But New Mexico provides another set of opportunities, and it's great to be living in the Southwest again."
Only one other New Mexican has served in a top-level USDA post: Clinton P. Anderson, who was secretary of agriculture from 1945 to 1948.
Gonzalez became undersecretary in August 1997 after six years at NMSU, where he served as assistant dean and deputy director of the Cooperative Extension Service from 1994 to 1996, head of the agricultural and extension education department from 1991 to 1994, and director of the college's international programs from 1992 to 1994.
The Southwest native was born in Texas, lived in La Union, N.M., and was raised in San Simon, Ariz., along the state line between Arizona and New Mexico.
At 54, he has worked in agriculture his entire adult life. He started out managing spice farms in Arizona and Mexico. Since 1969, he has worked as a professional educator with bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Arizona and a doctorate in agricultural and extension education from Pennsylvania State. He worked at three other land-grant universities in addition to NMSU: Iowa State, Arizona and Pennsylvania State.
His Hispanic roots and youthful experiences in Mexico planted an international seed that has blossomed throughout his career, guiding Gonzalez to head agriculture-related programs around the globe.
"I've always seen the international side of issues as a fundamental part of everything we do," Gonzalez said. "Cutting-edge research in New Mexico can and should have as much of an impact in China as it does on agriculture right here at home."
As undersecretary, Gonzalez heavily promoted the international agenda, signing research and cooperative agreements in dozens of countries from India to Mexico. He was instrumental in getting consideration of a $54 million line item to fund international activities by the USDA's research, education and economics agencies into the 2001 fiscal year budget request. The House rejected the proposal, but it was resubmitted as part of the fiscal 2002 budget bill.
While at USDA, Gonzalez worked with Congress to increase the combined annual budget from $1.7 billion to nearly $2.2 billion for the four agencies headed: the Agricultural Research Service; the Economic Research Service; the National Agricultural Statistics Service; and the Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service.
Gonzalez said one of his principal accomplishments at USDA was working to ensure that research and Extension programs meet the needs of underserved populations. He helped start a national grants initiative to strengthen academic programs at the nation's tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, and he helped establish a new tribal colleges Extension program.
He strengthened USDA support for small farms by establishing a Small Farms Conference and by designing a National Plan for Small Farms that outlines strategies and goals in research, education and outreach. In addition, he created a Small Farms Newsletter now distributed nationally to about 30,000 farmers, producers and consumers, and he broadened the small farms agenda to include assistance for farm workers, especially in times of crisis.
Finally, Gonzalez provided leadership for USDA's Biobased Products Coordination Council to promote activities in the research, development and commercialization of biobased industrial products.
Now, Gonzalez expects to plow his expertise into strengthening agricultural research in New Mexico and fortifying the college's academic programs.
"He will be bringing with him an immense storehouse of information that will be beneficial to the college and to citizens of New Mexico," said Jerry Schickedanz, dean of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.
Gonzalez said a top priority will be to prepare the Agricultural Experiment Station to weather the expected retirement of nearly 60 percent of the state's agricultural scientists in the next five years.
"A huge number of our scientific cadre are reaching retirement age, so we need to focus on developing the next generation of scientists, professionals and specialists," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is working on a strategic plan that will examine current research needs and priorities and then project those needs 10 years into the future
He says he will concentrate on raising public awareness about the critical role that agricultural research plays in all areas of science.
"We must make sure that agricultural research is part of the total science agenda and that it's given an equal role with other areas, such as health research, since we can have a critical impact in that field and many other fields," Gonzalez said. "Heck, agriculture even has a role to play in space-based research."
Gonzalez will concentrate on strengthening collaboration between the college and other research institutions involved in all walks of science. "We need to generate the understanding that we're all in this together," he said.
When all is said and done, Gonzalez is just glad to be back home. "I was born in Texas," he said. "My dad was a native New Mexican, my mother a native Californian, and my brothers were born in Arizona. So the way we see it, we claim the Southwest."
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