Kanika Davis, a 2007 graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), was recently appointed as one of the national outreach specialists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency. To Davis, the appointment is the fruit of a years-long personal odyssey that required patience and faith. Though she admits her scholastic and career journey has been rocky at times, she says she would not want to change a thing.
She originally planned to major in mathematics education after graduating high school, but her advisor, Dorothy Holt, encouraged her to consider majoring in agriculture.
“Mrs. Holt explained that agriculture touches on a wide range of disciplines, including mathematics education,” Davis said. “So, I became one of the first students to major in the university’s new agricultural education program.”
Davis faced a hurdle when it came time to try to find a good job after graduation. She applied for over 100 jobs, but only received three decent offers. But because her intuition told her she should wait to find jobs that were better suited to her interests and offered better pay, she decided to consider other options.
“I heard a few UAPB graduates had gone on to obtain master’s degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville,” she said. “I also learned there was a possibility to finish this master’s degree in one year. During my continued years of education, I often felt I was lagging behind all my peers with whom I studied,” she said. “And it was through these experiences and feelings that I learned when you are in the valley, you can’t see the mountaintop that you are approaching. When I graduated from U of A, I was offered a job as a national underwriter for the USDA Risk Management Agency. It was almost unheard of for a new graduate to get a national position of this type. But it was in this moment that I realized my years of hard work had paid off. I was on the mountaintop.”
At the Risk Management Agency (RMA), Davis worked as a national underwriter for the USDA Federal Crop Insurance Corporation’s National Crop Insurance Program. She was responsible for conducting technical evaluations of proposals sent in by potential contractors, dealing with administrative contracting and policy matters and acting as a spokesperson for the
Though she was learning a lot and enjoying the perks of the position, Davis felt she was lacking something in her work – contact with actual farmers and ranchers. She started looking for outreach opportunities, but her options were limited by the confines of her job duties. She quickly realized she had to make a move.
“At that point, I began to understand outreach was my true calling, but realized that was basically not an option in the position I was in,” she said. “I inquired about the possibility of taking a pay cut and relocating to a regional office so I could obtain experience in outreach. Some superiors told me I was stupid to go to the regional office, but my supervisor supported
After six years working for the RMA in a national position, she trusted her intuition and took a $20,000 pay cut to join the RMA regional office, where she gained outreach experience serving as a risk management specialist, as well as the office’s regional outreach coordinator.
Davis would go on to join the USDA National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as a full-time public affairs specialist in 2019. In the spring of 2021, she received the job offer that seemed specially made for her. In May, she started working for the Farm Service Agency’s outreach team.
“Things have kind of come full circle for me now that I am once again in a national-level position after having left the underwriter position in 2015,” she said. “I think the determining factor of why they chose me for this position was my combined background in underwriting, public affairs and outreach. Since all farmers have to interact with the Farm Service Agency if they are looking to participate in USDA programs, I am now on the front lines of outreach.”
Davis works with state outreach coordinators in 33 eastern and southern states to ensure farmers, ranchers, landowners and operators know what USDA services are available. Her main goal is to increase access and break down the barriers producers face in taking advantage of these services.
“There is a huge disparity between producers when it comes to knowledge of our programs,” she said. “We work to ensure every customer, including our nation’s minority and underserved producers, know what the USDA has to offer. To some underserved producers, the prospect of taking advantage of USDA programs is like going into a hardware store not fully
understanding how any of the tools can benefit you. Our job is to listen to producers’ needs, identify and explain what’s offered through USDA, and then equip them with the right tools to be successful.”
Davis credits much of her professional success to her education at UAPB, as well as supportive faculty and personnel at the university. She also credits her time working as an assistant for the UAPB Small Farm Program under the supervision of Dr. Henry English in fostering her passion for outreach.
“If you are not successful in the UAPB Department of Agriculture, it’s because you didn’t take advantage of the resources,” she said. “All of my peers from UAPB have fulfilling and well-paid federal or private sector jobs in the field of agriculture. UAPB has given us so much, and I want to make a point to figure out how we alumni can adequately give back.”