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Ag InnovatHER Helps Lead NIFA from the Heartland

Drenda Williams’ agricultural journey is one of those special, full-circle situations you hear about in the movies.

She grew up in rural Missouri with a love of science. In her quest to attend college, she applied and was selected for one of the USDA’s first classes of the 1890 National Scholars Program. Today, her story is a shining example of what the Agency hopes to accomplish with that prestigious program.

Williams has since spent her entire career with the USDA, ascending to a key leadership role based in her home state, leading operations for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of their office in Kansas City, Missouri. In her role, Williams focuses on improving “efficiency and equity ” within the Agency and her employee’s interactions with stakeholders like FarmHERs and RanchHERs.

A few years ago, Williams and her colleague Dr. Dionne Toombs broke a “grass” ceiling together as the first two African American women to hold NIFA’s top-ranking leadership positions concurrently.

Drenda Williams (Photo courtesy of NIFA)

USDA 1890 Scholars Program

Drenda grew up in Vandalia, Mo., a rural area in Audrain County with a population of about 2,500. It’s close to Hannibal, the town best known as the birthplace of the American author Mark Twain. While she didn’t technically grow up in agriculture, it was all around her.

“When I said, I didn’t grow up around agriculture—of course, there were farms,” Williams explained. “I remember, when we were younger, running through a cornfield to play, but not actually knowing about farming as far as, like, the business side of farming and production side and things like that. So, all of that was new to me.”

Her genuine love of agriculture first began as a love of science. As she approached college in the early 1990s, she hoped to major in computer science. A counselor encouraged her to apply for the USDA’s 1890 National Scholars Program, which aims to increase diversity in agriculture. The prestigious program covers tuition at any of the 19 HBCU Land-Grant Universities and culminates with a full-time position within the USDA.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know how to pay for it,” she explained.

She was selected for one of the program’s first classes in 1993. She chose to stay in Missouri and attend Lincoln University. Since her scholarship fell under the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), she was asked to study agriculture. After graduation, she became a soil conservationist and spent most of her early career on farms with producers, learning everything she could from them.

Drenda is proud of her desire to learn new things from others and ask questions, and—looking back on her life and career so far—knows it had a hand in her advancement (even if she didn’t know that at the time!)

“I always listen to the others who have more experience—even as an entry-level employee,” she said. “I didn’t think I knew everything. That’s where I learned a lot of things. I went out on the farm, learned, and asked questions. So, if I went back [to give my younger self any advice], I would tell myself, ‘You don’t know how great you’re going to be.’ That would be the only thing. I never really thought I would get here.”

Williams planting a tree as an ag intern. (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)

Leading from Within

As she continued her career with the USDA, working at the Lincoln University (MO) Center for Excellence in Geographic Information Systems, Drenda’s interest in computer science and programming became an indispensable resource as the agency looked to transition research and mapping to digital mediums. She helped develop these processes and led agency personnel training across the state of Missouri. Her success in this role led to another with the USDA’s Missouri state office as an ag economist assisting with the state’s cost list for Farm Bill programs. While she had a background in science, she took each opportunity to rise within the agency as a challenge.

“I don’t know why they chose me…but well, I guess I do know why,” she said, smiling. “I’m a hard worker, and I’m very analytical in thought, and I always research things, and I know about processes and policies.”

It wasn’t long before they needed someone in operations. That led to her next role as a Civil Rights Director before she ascended to her current position as Associate Director of Operations.

“I say, ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” Williams shared. “Sometimes others, including ourselves, put limits on what we should do, be, or attain. When you don’t put boundaries on yourself, the sky is the limit with hard work, dedication, and determination. […] I wouldn’t change a thing because it all brought me here.”

NIFA Leadership with Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. From left, NIFA Assoc. Director for Operations Ms. Drenda Williams, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Dr. Dionne Toombs, and NIFA Director Dr. Manjit K. Misra. (Photo courtesy of NIFA)

Efficiency & Equity

To understand the true scope of William’s role at NIFA, it’s helpful to learn about what NIFA really is. How it directly supports the agricultural and scientific communities as well as its resounding impact far beyond those industries. Here’s how Williams describes it to people (like me!) when they ask:

“NIFA is an agency that funds research and extension that touches all Americans, and, I think, people don’t realize the impact NIFA has through the programs that it funds,” she said. “It goes from youth and family [services], and the raw materials in clothes we wear to climate, food production, any animal systems, and nutrition. So, when explaining to the public what we do, we talk about those things and the impacts the research has on all those good things. It’s, again, [primarily] about funding research and extension at Land Grant universities around the country. But ultimately, that research and the benefits from the research end up in everyone’s household.”

In her leadership role at NIFA, Williams has two main goals: efficiency and equity. She’s dedicated to improving processes that involve people—both her employees and the American public they serve. This includes using technology to increase task automation for agency document approvals and ensuring her employees have the necessary training to support stakeholders.

“If I had to explain my job, I would say to keep NIFA a well-oiled machine,” Williams said. “Making sure things are working well [or] if there’s something that needs to be improved…to improve employee morale, or processes and policies. Those types of things that create a culture where our workforce has the tools and resources, they need to be successful in the workplace.”

One of her proudest professional accomplishments was revitalizing the mentorship program at the USDA. She was also key in the implementation of NIFA’s Outreach Tool, which helps give everybody in the ag community a seat at the table if they want one.

“So, within NIFA, we have what’s called a peer review process, in which proposals are evaluated by a panel of their peers,” Williams said. “And so, we created an outreach tool. Anyone interested in becoming one of those panel members can submit your information on our website. NIFA will consider that when developing those groups. So, again, it’s under the equity vision that I have –to ensure those who want to participate are able to do so. And it increases our transparency in the process.”

NOTE: This interview represents the personal views of Drenda Williams and does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Institute of Food & Agriculture.

Here’s a list of programs that might interest the FarmHERs & RanchHER community:

To learn more about NIFA’s agricultural grant programs and other resources, visit

Drenda Williams speaking to students.
Drenda Williams (Photo courtesy of NIFA)

20 Questions with Drenda Williams

1. What is your favorite fruit or vegetable? (Or favorite food, in general.)

Avocado. I am a texture person, so I eat avocado every day. Plus, it has the good fats.

Photo by Adobe Stock

2. What is your favorite recipe? If possible, please share it with us.

I love to cook, so if I had to choose one, I would say my non-dairy salmon pasta.

3. You’re making chili. Beans or NO beans?

I don’t really like chili. Beans and I don’t do well. I probably ate too much as a child.

4. What is your favorite smell?

My favorite smell would be my teakwood candles. I love that fragrance.

5. What’s your favorite book (or) movie (or) record (or) podcast?

My favorite movies are documentaries. I am always willing to learn things. Since I am very analytical, I enjoy learning about processes, scientific research, or the background behind a historical event.

6. What is your favorite holiday? Do you associate any family traditions related to it you’d like to share?

My family is big on family dinners. So, every holiday, including birthdays, we have a family dinner where my father, mother, siblings, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, and family friends attend. We like to have fun, so my mother always has some great games for us to play. My favorite is Family Feud because my team won the last time.

Williams’ family at a family dinner gathering (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)

7. What are three items/products you can’t live without?

Water, sunshine, and music

8. Where is the most amazing place you’ve traveled?

I would say Athens, Greece. It is such an amazing place with lots to see and do. The history and culture is something everyone should see.

9. What’s something at the top of your Bucket List?

Well, I live life to the fullest and don’t wait for things to happen, I make them happen. The only thing I have left is to go to Victoria Falls in Africa. It looks like a beautiful, serene place so I plan to go.

10. Who would play you in a movie about your life?

I would want one of my three beautiful daughters to play their mother in a movie. They would have to decide which one gets the role.

Drenda with her three daughters (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)

11. What is your guilty pleasure? (It can be anything!)

Football! I love it when the professional football season starts, and I enjoy going to the games with my sister.

12. Who is a person you admire from history, living or dead?

I admire my late uncle. He was so supportive of everything I have done in my life. He had big dreams for me even when I didn’t see them. Especially since I am a basketball player, he wouldn’t let me live it down that I didn’t go into the WNBA. I admire him because he was mistreated during his last days in a medical facility, but he was strong and fought until the end. It reminds me every day to remain humble, caring, and compassionate toward others. Your inner strength is your most powerful tool.

13. Who is a person you admire in your personal life?

I admire my mother. She is a very strong, driven woman. She has only a high school diploma but has a passion for people, working hard, and doing what is right. She instilled that in me, and I attribute who I am because of her. She’s still alive, so I hope I am making her proud.

Willaims with her mother, Lois Vardeman (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)
Williams with her mother, Lois Vardeman (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)

14. Who is the first person you think to call when something amazing happens?

I thank God.

15. What is something new you are learning about right now, or want to learn more about?

I am learning more about incorporating weightlifting into my holistic lifestyle. I never liked lifting weights, but I am learning about what types of exercises to do.

16. What is your best quality or hidden talent?

My best quality is I am creative. I love to create and make things whether it is a food dish, sewing, gardening, or crocheting … once my mind thinks of something I create it.

17. What is your #1 pet peeve?

Here lately, it is insects eating my plants. I love watching the plants grow and produce fruit, and to see them gone in a second to satisfy an insect’s appetite really annoys me! But I understand insects need to eat, too.

Lettuces in Drenda’s garden. (Photo courtesy of Drenda Williams)

18. If a genie granted you one wish/superpower, what would it be?

If I had one wish, I would love to go back in time and visit my maternal grandmother. I have only had one living grandparent in my lifetime, so going back in time to visit with her and learn from her would be a blessing.

19. If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you’d buy with the winnings?

I would buy my parents a home, so they become first-time homeowners.

20. If you had to choose a new career path, what would it be?

I would still be serving the public in some capacity. I have a passion for giving back and making a difference.

Ag InnovatHERs: Breaking the “Grass” Ceiling

In our new blog series, “Ag InnovatHERs: Breaking the Grass Ceiling” in Partnership with Nationwide, we are highlighting female Ag InnovatHERs in tech, agribusiness, and other fields like Charlsie who are helping support producers and propel the agriculture industry forward.

As the #1 farm insurer in the U.S., 1 Nationwide has the innovations and expertise to help you grow and protect your business success. And because their roots are in agriculture, we care about your neighbors, too. You’ll see it in the programs and services they provide and support that keep your farm community thriving. To access informative agribusiness resources designed just for FarmHERs, visit Nationwide’s Ag Insight Center.

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