Giving backBy MEGAN PHILLIPS,
Mike espy continues service to country and world through work with CNFA
After serving as the first African American secretary of agriculture, first African American congressman of Mississippi since the Civil War, and the first African American assistant secretary of agriculture, attorney Mike Espy feels like he has more to offer in terms of service to the United States and the world.
A native of Yazoo City, Mike was born in 1953, and was graduated from Yazoo City High School in 1971. He then attended Howard University in Washington D.C. where he was graduated in 1975 and immediately attended law school at Santa Clara University graduating in 1978 at 25 years old.
“I came right back (to Jackson) because my father had died… In 1978, I passed the bar exam the first time… I was proud of that because the bar (passing rate) was six percent. I passed and could begin practicing law in 1979.”
His next step was serving as the assistant attorney general for two years. “I was head of the consumer protection division, and then I ran for congress in 1985, and I won. I was the first African American congressman in Mississippi since the Civil War. I beat a Republican incumbent to win. In the primary, I beat a former governor’s grandson and former U.S. senator’s nephew.”
Mike served in Congress from 1986 until 1992, having been reelected three times. During this time, he served on the budget committee, the agriculture committee, and chairman of the U.S. Domestic Hunger Committee.
“That’s how I got to know agriculture from the technical side, the program side, the financial side and the need side… Then I was Vice President of the Democratic Leadership Council.”
Just after being elected for his fourth term, former President Bill Clinton named Mike as the secretary of agriculture. In this position he began his journey of helping feed those in need in America and throughout the world.
For 10 years, Mike has served on the board of CNFA — Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, an international nonprofit organization, headquartered in Washington D.C. and in Brussels, Belgium and with offices in 15 countries throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
“In (former) President Ronald Reagan’s second term, about 1988, the Soviet Union was falling,” Mike explained. “So, President Reagan, to his credit, cast an eye toward the future. He said that when the Soviet Union falls, all of the dependent countries in the Soviet satellite system would be in jeopardy of failing economically.”
To fill the economic void, Reagan promoted U.S. democratic values through the delivery of food and advice on economies through agriculture development, according to Mike.
“And the mechanism that he decided to use to do that was to create an organization. It’s always been called CNFA. But he named it Citizens’ Network for Foreign Affairs… Through that network, he thought there would be a coalition between the private sector and the public sector, between private agro-business companies and the U.S. government to fashion solutions for those eastern European countries that would be struggling after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
CNFA made its initial presence in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, bolstering their agricultural production and therefore their economies.
At the beginning of the War in Afghanistan (2001-present), CNFA spread its resources from eastern Europe to Asia.
Ten years ago, when Mike was asked to be on the CNFA board by former secretary of agriculture under Reagan and friend John Block, CNFA then expanded again to countries in Africa.
As one of currently 11 board members, Mike serves as the organization’s secretary of agriculture.
“In the bylaws (of CNFA), Reagans said there should be at least one secretary of defense and one secretary of agriculture on the board at all times.”
Current CFNA outreach programs are located in Georgia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Guinea, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola.
“The way our mission has evolved is, instead of filling the void in eastern European countries, the focus is now on using our expertise for countries our nation has identified as Feed the Future countries,” Mike said.
Feed the Future is a program where the United States identifies low-income countries that have the potential to feed large numbers of people given the right resources.
“The state department has identified that by 2050, the world population’s going to double,” Mike explained. “The only measurable way to provide food for the increased population is to develop production in very low income countries that would have a potential to provide food. A lot of those countries are in Africa.”
Under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Feed the Future program was created through CNFA.
“As we have evolved from eastern Europe and our expertise have developed, we’ve become an international nonprofit organization to provide creative solutions for individual countries. So, we changed our name from Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs to Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture. That provides the context for going into these Feed the Future countries and using our creative history to provide solutions.”
Farmer to Farmer is another CNFA program that identifies what countries need to more efficiently produce agriculture.
“In many countries, once those farmers harvest their crops, the roads are so bad, and it rains so much that the crops spoil by the time you get to the market. So, we provide them with post-harvest solutions,” Mike said.
Agro-dealer strengthening programs are also a part of Farmer to Farmer, and the program gives farmers in Africa one-stop shops for tractors, gasoline, seeds and other necessities for their food production.
Mike has assisted with all of these programs and more as one of the CNFA board members. He was also the senior advisor for Feed the Children for six years, negotiating with the U.S. and other industrial countries for excess food to feed 1 million children through the charity organization.
“I would negotiate the surplus amount, I would negotiate the shipping, and I would follow that food — because it was pilfered and taken and stolen — into those countries and make sure it got to the village, and I did that every day for six years and I loved it.”
As one of the board members for CNFA, he believes it’s his way of giving back.
“You’re not just coming in with dialogue and empty talk, you’re coming in with solutions. I love that. You’re a missionary, but you’re an economic missionary… The board members are not paid anything… They may send me to a country to interview the leadership to use that information in developing our proposal, and they pay for my transportation and food and lodging, but I don’t get paid and it’s my way of giving back… To me, it’s been an incredible experience.”