WASHINGTON — Karen Ross's responsibilities have expanded several billion-fold since she left Sacramento and her work representing grape growers.
Six months ago, Ross oversaw a modestly budgeted staff of five as president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Now, as the Agriculture Department's chief of staff, her turf covers some 110,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $140 billion.
"Every day, it's like trying to cram a billion things in," Ross said.
That means: first things first.
The white walls of her modest, second-floor office remain mostly bare, though she's held the job since January. Someday, she says, she must get around to putting up some farm pictures.
Her desk, though, is constantly replenished with reports to read. On the other side of the door is the appropriately more majestic office of her boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Her two BlackBerries are constantly congested with queries and comments. She mimics using her feet to manipulate an imaginary third device.
"Many people," Ross said with a laugh, "have my e-mail address."
California farmers and their allies, perhaps most of all, know to stay in touch with Ross. When California Department of Food and Agriculture head A.G. Kawamura was in town Wednesday, it was Ross he dined with. When California lawmakers want a channel into the Agriculture Department, it's Ross they will call.
Though a Nebraska native, who retains an interest in an 800-acre family farm near the Wyoming border, Ross is professionally most associated with California agriculture. The University of Nebraska graduate served seven years as vice president of the Agricultural Council of California, followed by about 13 years with the winegrape growers.
"One of the things I can contribute to the team is my understanding of specialty crops," Ross said, referring to the fruits, nuts and vegetables that set California apart from many other farm states.
Citing this background, California farm organizations and members of the state's congressional delegation had rallied around Ross as a candidate for a top Agriculture Department position in the newly formed Obama administration. The top job, as secretary, seemed a reach, but some hoped Ross would be tapped as deputy.
"Karen brings California and Midwestern experience in agriculture and a deep commitment to the environment, consumers, and rural communities that make her the ideal candidate," Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno argued in a letter in February endorsed by other California lawmakers.
The Obama administration nonetheless broke the mold of having a Californian in one of the department's top two positions, instead selecting the former Iowa governor Vilsack as secretary and Massachusetts-based professor Kathleen Merrigan as deputy.
Finally, in December, Vilsack brought Ross back in the position of senior adviser. It amounted to a holding pattern, while Vilsack's first chief of staff awaited his confirmation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In keeping with ethics requirements, Ross has recused herself from working on winegrape issues for a year. When she leaves the Agriculture Department, she has also agreed to abide by a two-year ban on future department-related lobbying.
Ross and her husband, Barry, held onto their Sacramento house and took a place in Alexandria's historic Old Town. It's a lovely area, which she sees only occasionally. Ross says she will drive or take the Metro in to arrive by 7:30 a.m. She'll return home by about 8 p.m., where she can settle in with her nightly work readings.
"I would stay later," Ross said, "but I feel sorry for my husband."
Ross genially declines to state her age, acknowledging only that "I have over 30 years of working experience." In the course of a half-hour interview, she laughs often. In the course of her workday, she buckles down to some serious business.
One of the largest federal agencies, the Agriculture Department is also a frequent target of criticism from both within and without. The department's computer system is vulnerable, investigators say. Civil rights problems persisted for years, officials have acknowledged. Millions of dollars in crop subsidies have been paid to dead or otherwise ineligible farmers, the Government Accountability Office found.
Ross speaks of assisting in a "cultural transformation," something the department appears to need. The department is filled with dedicated, hard-working professionals, a good number of whom are already at work when Ross arrives. The Agriculture Department also ranks a demoralizing 23rd out of 30 federal agencies ranked for employee satisfaction, according to a 2009 survey by American University and the Partnership for Public Service.
All of which helps drive Ross to a succinct conclusion when asked about the toughest part of her job.
"There's simply not enough time," Ross said.