Breaking through a glass barrier

by Russell Boone

Posted on Feb 09, 2018

2008 Fort Valley State University plant science graduate, Esther Nicole Cleggs-Burns.

2008 Fort Valley State University plant science graduate, Esther Nicole Cleggs-Burns.

A Fort Valley State University alumna is setting a milestone for agriculture in the state of Alabama.

Esther Nicole (Hunt) Cleggs-Burns, a 2008 plant science graduate of FVSU’s College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology is the state’s farm loan chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) Farm Loan Program (FLP). Cleggs-Burns is the first African-American woman to be named to the post.

In what could be considered a trail-blazing role for women in the field of agriculture, Cleggs-Burns is focused on providing top-notch service in her position. She said that one cannot allow male-dominated industries or unfamiliar settings to impede progress.

“I found out long ago that God had something for me in this agricultural arena because even when I’ve tried to leave, it’s pulled me back,” Cleggs-Burns said. "You couldn’t have told me a year ago that I would’ve been in this position, but it’s happened, and I’m thankful.”

Self-doubt almost prevented Cleggs-Burns from seeking the position. However, after talking to a fellow farm loan manager about the opportunity, she gained confidence and applied for the job. Prior to becoming farm loan chief, she served as a farm loan officer and a farm loan manager, positions she feels seasoned her well for her current post.

The former Army ROTC cadet and Wildcat Battalion member said she feels some pressure due to her age (32) and her groundbreaking achievement, but she accepts her responsibilities accordingly.

“What I do is provide leadership, management and direction for program implementation for farm loans in the state. I develop and recommend policy to further define what the national office says. We have a code of federal regulations, the national office interprets that, and I interpret it for the state as needed,” Cleggs-Burns said.

The FVSU alumna oversees a staff consisting of a loan specialist, a loan analyst, an appraiser and six loan teams throughout Alabama. The loan teams, comprised of loan officers, a farm loan manager and a program technician, don’t directly report to Cleggs-Burns, but rely on her for technical guidance in implementing loan programs.

“My goals in this position are to ensure Alabama meets the established national goals, ensure proper implementation of farm loan programs throughout Alabama, and increase outreach to ensure communities throughout Alabama are aware of what the agency has to offer,” Cleggs-Burns said.

The Hartwell, Georgia native said she was raised in a rural setting but had limited exposure to agriculture. She matriculated to FVSU’s agriculture program with help from her then vice principal (an FVSU alumnus) who told her of the USDA 1890 National Scholars Program. She applied and accepted the scholarship in 2004. The National Scholars Program pays for tuition, fees, books, room and board and provides internships every summer along with employee benefits while working with the USDA.    

“Fort Valley State gave me a great education and skills that I’ve been able to translate into my position here at FSA,” Cleggs-Burns said. “They (instructors) really cared about my matriculation through school. Most importantly, they made sure I was prepared for life after graduation.”

The FVSU alumna said that participating in internships throughout her FVSU career provided her with key work experience. One of those internships included participating in the Life Sciences Summer Research Program at the University of Minnesota. There she worked in the plant pathology and biotechnology lab.

After graduating in 2008, Cleggs-Burns did not have to wait long for employment. She began working for the USDA as a farm loan officer trainee three weeks after graduation. Before being named to her present position, Cleggs-Burns served as the farm loan manager for Lawrence County in Moulton, Ala.

Her advice to students looking for successful careers with agricultural degrees is to take advantage of every opportunity, even if it’s outside the realm of their major. “Plenty of the people I graduated with didn’t stay in agriculture, but they have a background in agriculture. They went on to become dentists, doctors or pharmacists. With agriculture, you have unlimited opportunities.” Cleggs-Burns said.

In addition to her duties with the USDA, Cleggs-Burns is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves with two overseas deployments under her belt.

She is married to Brandon Cleggs-Burns and they have a four-year-old daughter.

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