AFSA: A Vital Voice for Small Agencies


In a significant incident in the history of international trade in agriculture, the Soviet Union shocked the world by leveraging the lack of market transparency to buy up global wheat stocks in the “Great Grain Robbery” of 1972. This led to higher global food prices, unexpected global food insecurity, and an examination of how it could happen without the United States’ knowledge.

The event made international news and was also a powerful reminder to rural America, the agricultural community, and Americans generally that international affairs directly affects their lives and livelihoods. And it gave a sustained boost to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and its mission to link U.S. agriculture to the world to enhance export opportunities and global food security.

The incident showed that diplomacy matters and that letting this capacity atrophy has consequences. The fact that the Foreign Agricultural Service Act creating FAS was passed in 1930 proves this insight was not new, but the 1972 Grain Robbery and, later, the 1994 World Trade Organization Uruguay Round Agriculture Agreement provided the impetus for more ambitious commitments to market transparency and opening overseas markets to U.S. agricultural products.

Is it a coincidence that AFSA won uncontested representation in FAS in 1994, the same year that a new paradigm in agricultural trade was launched?

Director General Petry (center) engages with scientific researchers on bee health in Taiwan.
USDA / Foreign Agricultural Service

A Trusted Partner

In more than 20 years in the Foreign Service and as an AFSA member, I have had the pleasure to be an AFSA FAS representative and vice president, and I am now USDA’s deputy administrator of foreign affairs (Director General of the FAS Foreign Service). In these various roles, I have seen AFSA as a partner and valuable contributor to the workings and culture at FAS, both as a union and a professional organization. AFSA’s dual role is a particularly valuable asset to FAS as a small foreign affairs agency. AFSA often serves as a facilitator, supplementing FAS’ institutional interactions with expertise and experiences that aren’t readily available to a small agency whose operational and administrative functions are confined to a relatively small office.

Being able to consult with AFSA—a trusted partner that has a common interest in consistency, fairness, and adherence to the relevant laws and regulations that govern the Foreign Service—about how other agencies do this or that is very helpful. In addition to holding management to a high standard internally and with other Foreign Service agencies, FAS AFSA representatives have historically also been known for constructive engagement on how our organization can meet our trade and food security mission while treating employees with respect and fairness, the hallmark of a union that is poised to productively represent employees going into the future.

AFSA can also help FAS integrate with the broader foreign affairs community and have a voice in the conversation. As economic diplomacy continues to receive greater attention, agricultural trade and food security play an increasingly vital role. Incorporating the voice of rural America strengthens understanding and support for diplomacy among an influential segment of our population. Whether food insecurity issues emanating from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the impact of climate change on global food trade and availability, the foreign policy community benefits from the data, analysis, and active participation of a specialized foreign affairs agency like FAS.

I believe AFSA also provides especially valuable support to small foreign affairs agencies such as FAS and the Foreign Commercial Service in helping them lift their voices to promote the Foreign Service and present a greater vision of the way diplomacy can successfully represent the wonderful variety of Americans as well as global trade’s contribution to our economic success.

Professional Support

Director General Petry examines an artichoke plant during a visit to producers and exporters in California.
USDA / Foreign Agricultural Service

AFSA’s role as a professional organization is often underrated. FAS officers gain enormous benefit from AFSA’s support in accessing training and other professional development resources at the State Department and elsewhere. Attending FSI and modeling our training on its example enhance our ability to cross-train and become more effective members of the country team. Not only are we proud of our recent ambassadors, but FAS officers frequently serve as acting deputy chiefs of mission and in other mission support roles.

Like all federal agencies, FAS has a lot of work to do to improve, and AFSA has to be part of the solution. Hiring, employee retention, performance management, limited budgets, expanding mandates, and information technology are real issues that FAS and other agencies struggle to address. Specifically, AFSA can provide important support for small foreign affairs agencies within departments that generally have a domestic mandate. Due to the small size of the Foreign Service community in FAS and the sometimes-understandable reluctance to openly share concerns because it is hard to speak anonymously, AFSA has an invaluable role as a conduit for honest feedback and ideas to improve our agency. The FAS AFSA vice president and the working groups they form around these issues are critical in ensuring broad community involvement in development and implementation of solutions.

In addition to contributing to AFSA, I believe that FAS members and agriculture have a great story to tell about the importance of diplomacy, the Foreign Service, and AFSA. While a small sector of the overall U.S. economy, agriculture is one of the most widely dispersed industries across the country and the largest economic sector in many states and communities. While FAS strives to promote exports to help drive agriculture and provide support to rural economies, these communities can also be great advocates for sustained global engagement, linking diplomacy to domestic economic development. FAS AFSA members need to take an active role in broadening the constituency of diplomacy in the United States and helping to communicate concrete examples where Foreign Service officers add direct economic value to American communities.

All AFSA members need to conduct outreach to explain how diplomacy, economic diplomacy in the case of FAS, is a powerful force for improving the lives of Americans. Effective outreach will not only strengthen the foreign affairs community, our agencies, and AFSA, but also enhance our ability to strengthen American security and economic interests. Just as FAS Foreign Service officers voted to join AFSA in 1994 and cemented a formative event for our agency, I feel that FAS members can and will be strong contributors and strengthen the association for the next 100 years of its history.

Mark Petry has served as deputy administrator, foreign affairs, of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and Director General of the FAS Foreign Service since May 2023. He served as the managing director and deputy DG from 2021 to 2023. A career Foreign Service officer, he was chief of the agriculture section of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2017 to 2021 and acting director and deputy director of the New Technologies and Production Methods Division in FAS from 2010 to 2017. He also served as an agricultural attaché in Beijing and Moscow, and as an AFSA FAS representative and then vice president. He is an Indiana native with a wife and two children.


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