Xochitl Torres Small has been sworn in as the Department of Agriculture's deputy secretary, making her the first Latina and second woman of color to hold the No. 2 spot at the agency.

The former New Mexico congresswoman was tapped in by President Biden in 2021 to serve as undersecretary for rural development at USDA, the branch of the department that oversees infrastructure, utilities and healthcare across rural communities. Now in a higher ranking position, she takes on the role as the administration and Democrats are looking to strengthen their footprints in rural areas.

"To get to be deputy secretary and in charge of the backend of the shop is really exciting because we impact people's lives in so many ways," Torres Small told NPR ahead of her swearing-in ceremony at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I'm the granddaughter of farm workers, and of course, that's a way that it has impacted my life. But my parents were educators. And when it comes to thinking about the kids that they're teaching, making sure that those kids have healthy, nutritious food to help them learn is crucial."

Torres Small has been promoted at a time when the department is undergoing changes to address historical discrimination across its lending and other programs. Late last year the department began making payments on loan cancellations for some farmers and providing $2.2 billion for farmers who experienced discrimination prior to Jan. 2021.

Biden's first deputy secretary at USDA, Jewel Bronaugh, ran point on equity initiatives, both internally and externally. She was not only the first woman of color in the role, but she also co-chaired the equity commission at USDA, which released its first report detailing over 30 recommendations to bring equity to farming.

"One of my favorite things about serving as undersecretary at rural development was that rural America is a lot of different things and a lot of different places, and it's incredibly diverse," Torres Small told NPR. "Yes, it's a farmer on a tractor, and it's also a rural [fishing village] in Alaska and it's also Indian country."

Some of these responsibilities now fall on Torres Small, including looming department staffing shortages. Torres Small has previously raised concerns that nearly half of the employees she oversaw in rural development were eligible to retire, even as demands for the agency have increased — a concern she carries into her larger position.

"One of the things I would lose sleep over at rural development was the percentage of our employees who are eligible to retire in this fiscal year," she said. "I'm excited to delve into that work and make sure that we are looking towards the future when it comes to succession planning."

Torres Small served in the House from 2019 to 2021 after she won in an open seat race in New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District that had been held by Republican Steve Pearce since 2011. But Torres Small, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member, lost the seat the following cycle in 2021. That district has since swung between Republican and Democratic control.

She is also promoted as farmers, food advocates and lawmakers are gearing up for the renewal of a farm bill. The 2018 bill expires Sept. 30 and Torres Small assured lawmakers during her confirmation hearing that the views of farmers and stakeholders would be communicated from the department.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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