WASHINGTON — Wonder how well known Mike Espy has become after nearly 10 months as Agriculture Secretary? Ask Zhu Rongji, vice premier of China. He even knows what Espy's father once did for a living.
Espy told Zhu the story of his father during a conversation in October inside Beijing's Forbidden City to show why the United States has any business nudging the People's Republic concerning human rights.
"I brought up my father who was a USDA 'Negro County Agent' in 1937 and 56 years later his son is sitting in this palace room next to this Chinese leader and is representing all of American agriculture," Espy said in an interview. "I told him that's the measure of the progress we've made in the United States."
Whether in China, flood-stricken Iowa or a food bank in the Bronx, that kind of personal, hands-on approach has helped make Espy one of the most visible members of the Clinton Cabinet.
"He's very easy to visit with one on one," said Merlin Plagge, a farmer and president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. Espy made the first trip to the Midwest after the Mississippi flooded and soon became Clinton's point man for disaster assistance.
A string of crises and crop problems--starting with a food poisoning outbreak in January and through Southern California's wildfires--has helped put Espy in front of the cameras.
But Espy, who soon turns 40, has sought recognition as well.
"I have a sense that the USDA and the secretary who represents the USDA has always been seen as either a stranger or adversary to the farming community and a stranger to the consuming community," he said.
That was his style as a member of Congress representing an impoverished part of Mississippi, and as a legal services lawyer before that.
"I just believe in the personal approach to knowing as much about the subject as possible, and not sitting behind a desk here, because all I can see is the Washington Monument," he said.
He's done a lot of sitting in airplanes--already he has visited close to 40 states and several foreign countries. He was the first Clinton Cabinet member to visit China.
One round of travel started in a Washington, D.C., school to talk about salt and fat in school lunches, then moved to food bank in the Bronx to talk about the department's role in fighting hunger, a San Francisco business club to promote agricultural trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, California's Napa Valley to inspect damage to vineyards from phylloxera, an aphid-like pest, and Southern California to encourage Forest Service firefighters.
His schedule reflects the scope of the Agriculture Department, for which farm programs represent a diminishing share of the budget and have shrinking support in Congress.
The department spends more than half its $71-billion budget on nutrition programs like food stamps and school lunches. It also manages timber sales and recreation in the national forests, while providing funds for housing and water and sewer construction in rural America.
And USDA officials have at least started talking with their counterparts at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department about such things as protecting water, land and food.
"It would appear to me that at least he's asking the right questions and he's moving agriculture in the proper direction, which is to have more of an alliance with its own consumers, and less with the old agricultural Establishment of chemical companies and land-grant colleges," said Jim Hightower, former agriculture commissioner in Texas.
That said, Espy is still in good standing with that Establishment.
"I don't have any fear at all that the department is going to run off and do anything catastrophic," said Dick Newpher, who runs the Washington office of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Newpher credits Espy's influence with tempering Administration policy on wetlands and pesticides. The group also has encouraged Espy's resistance to moving control of meat and poultry inspection from the Agriculture Department to the Food and Drug Administration.
After all, Espy sat on the House Agriculture Committee and voted with the Farm Bureau on most major issues. Most important to the mainstream farm groups and the Administration, he's given speech after speech in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposed by many of the progressive farm organizations that supported Clinton and have gained access at USDA.
Friends and critics say Espy is handicapped by unfilled vacancies or key positions still held by Republicans. "He's incredibly short-handed," said Robert Bergland, former secretary of agriculture and now the top lobbyist for rural electric cooperatives.
And the griping about slow follow-through on promises to overhaul meat inspections and the sluggish reorganization of the department's field offices has become more public.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, complained of a "certain amount of drift" on reorganization.
For the moment, however, Espy's focus is NAFTA. He canceled a Rome trip in recent days to help President Clinton sell the trade agreement to reluctant members of the House.
Espy says he'd like to make sure ordinary farmers as well as grain traders and food processors share in the benefits from increased trade with Mexico. Raising price-support loan rates might be the way.
"My problem is not my willingness," he said. "The problem is the federal budget."
In fact, money will be Espy's biggest test next year when debate begins on the 1995 farm bill that sets farm policy and spending.
In the meantime, he's still making time for the personal touch. Espy, who holds a black belt in tae kwon do, recently had two youngsters up to his office for a martial arts demonstration.