BY DARRYL EARNEST
• Grew up in rural west Alabama.
• B.S. in Industrial Engineering, Univ. of Alabama – 1990.
• Started career in Greenwood, Miss., field office.
• Served in Memphis 1991-2000, 2002-2005 and 2011-present; Washington DC 2000-2002 and 2005-2011.
• Served as Deputy Administrator of USDA’s Ag Marketing Service-Cotton Program since 2005.
• Worked entire 24-year career for AMS Cotton Program in a variety of positions.
Growing up in rural west Alabama as the only child of a coal miner father and a data entry technician mother, I learned early how to work hard, stay focused and proactively plan for the future. I’ve applied these lessons throughout my life and career with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are also at the core of our work here at the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Cotton Program.
Our Program is about 95 percent funded through user fees paid by our industry customers for the services we provide each year. This motivates us to provide the highest level of customer service and value to American cotton farmers and businesses. From cotton classification services to standards to market news information, our mission is to serve all facets of the industry. We take that very seriously. But, as with any agricultural commodity, uncertainty is a constant; and with cotton each crop can vary from year to year, and the outcome is heavily affected by the weather, harvesting conditions, seed varieties and markets. Each year, we use the experience of a tenured staff and the best information available to us to plan for various scenarios, while maintaining the highest level of service.
In spite of the challenging economic times and the trend for rising costs, we were able to provide the same high-level classing services without increasing fees for the last four years. And we plan to make it five in 2014. People ask me how does the Cotton Program keep fees steady when crop sizes are down, and the cost of doing business keeps going up? My answer goes back to my roots. Plan for everything. Planning proactively creates a more achievable path to success than remaining reactive.
In 2009, the last time fees were increased, I announced to the American Cotton Producers that the classing fees
needed to be raised to cover the financial needs of the Program. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but at the time it was necessary. I made a pledge at that time, that our Program would do everything possible to avoid future increases and to keep costs steady for as long as possible.
As part of this plan, I was not willing to sacrifice any of the accuracy, detail or customer service that the industry had come to expect from us. We needed to remain the global benchmark for High Volume Instrument (HVI) testing and standardization, while continuing to innovate and improve. To keep the level of quality at its highest and still keep our promise, we decided to analyze each aspect of our operations, starting at the core, find opportunities for increasing efficiencies and plan accordingly.
We established a new financial management culture in the Program whereby everyone took ownership in the budget planning, expenses, receivables and overall balance sheet of their respective operation, office or division. We placed more focus on variable costs such as energy, equipment, processes, shipping and labor scheduling in order to target opportunities to conserve and become more efficient. Since that pledge in 2009, we are more efficient and have refined our business model not only to look at the bottom line but at all of the lines that feed into it. Return on investment is a driving factor.
We are investing in the future now through developments in instrument-testing technology, automation, energy conservation and overall process management. We do a lot of this work and analysis in-house, utilizing the hundreds of years of experience amassed within our workforce. So far, we’ve been able to withstand three small crops out of five, rising operational costs and a government shutdown while remaining solvent and viable and to keep costs steady for as long as possible.
Our business model of continuous improvement is successful and serves as a model for other AMS programs and services. We will continue to strive for excellence and efficiency because our customers expect and deserve it. We do it through hard work and proactive planning. We do it because it is our duty and responsibility. And we do it because it helps the American cotton industry.
Contact Darryl Earnest in Memphis, Tenn., via email at Darryl.Earnest@ams.usda.gov.