Michael Alston grew up in Michigan and played football at Michigan State University, but never considered that his career would lead him to agriculture. Alston is currently the Associate Administrator of the Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Deputy Manager of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this role, he is the senior career employee within the RMA.
The RMA is the agency that administers and oversees the federal crop insurance program. This program helps farmers insure their crops against weather losses like tornadoes, droughts, or hail, as well as against total losses from other pests and pressures. The program covers more than $100 billion in liabilities nationwide every year.
Alston oversees the daily operations of the agency, advises the Office of the Secretary on RMA issues and positions, and also ensures the safety and workplace environment of the Washington, DC and field office employees.
Lindsay: What path led you to this position at this time?
Michael: Working here, in this position, has been a 30-year journey. After I graduated from Michigan State University, I took a job with the Justice Department, which led me to live and work overseas. From the Justice Department, I worked for the State Department for a few years, and at that point in my life, some personal factors led me to switch careers and work for the USDA.
At that time, USDA was looking for leaders, and by that time I had developed some good leadership skills so it was a good fit for me. I worked in Springfield, IL as the Deputy Director of that RMA office and then became the Director there. After about 10 years in Springfield, I took a position in Washington, DC working as the Associate Deputy Administrator for Compliance and l later moved to the Deputy Administrator for Insurance Services. At this point in my career, I was overseeing the ten regional offices of the RMA, and working with the 16 private insurance companies and the binding document between the government and those insurance companies. I oversaw that process.
All of those positions in the USDA were essentially leadership positions – making decisions, providing the right information to the right people, ensuring the appropriate work was getting done, and often being strategic about what positions and what work was most important to accomplish a goal.
Lindsay: What do you love most about your job?
Michael: I know at the end of every day that I have helped and worked with someone in rural America.
I have always understood that rural America is the backbone of our country and that a lot of folks don’t understand where food comes from. When you have the opportunity to travel overseas to countries where food isn’t available as I have, you understand how important food security and food to sustain a country really is. Go to places where they don’t have food and then you are ready to invest in fresh, safe, cheap, available food.
So I love knowing that I’ve helped a farmer or rancher stay in business. I love knowing that I’ve expanded opportunities for them. I enjoy promoting rural America.
Lindsay: What skills/education do you believe have helped you to be successful?
Michael: For me in my career, the most important skill set is flexibility and adaptability. I think often times people hold onto some theory of the past, and it has long ago become obsolete. You constantly must look at yourselves and what you are doing and try to improve.
Also, the foundation of any leader is accountability and integrity. If you aren’t accountable or you don’t have personal integrity, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter. You have nothing.
Lindsay: Describe a “day in the life” at your office.
Michael: I start at 8 am and I have meetings from 8 am to 4 pm.
I meet with folks from IT, I meet with folks from civil rights, I meet with the budget office, the chief financial officer, and folks from the FCIC Board. I spend my day talking to others, making decisions, and channeling information up or down.
Lindsay: Based on your experiences, do you think young people today should consider a career in agriculture?
Michael: Yes, definitely.
Agriculture makes up about 17 percent of all the jobs in the U.S. If you look strictly at rural America, that number goes up to about 35-40 percent. Most of those jobs are not about having your hands in the dirt – although that’s important – but there are so many other skill sets involved in the industry
In the USDA, I can go to any college campus in any discipline and hire someone. We need folks good at math, geography, finance, computers … there’s so much more to this industry than farming and ranching.
So yes, not only is it a vibrant industry, but it’s just very important and it sustains our country. I would definitely encourage young folks to think about agriculture.