Kevin Barnes

Growing up on a tobacco farm in Wilson County, all Kevin Barnes wanted to do was leave. 

“We lived out in the country, on a farm, and my father seriously believed in hard work,” Barnes said. “We farmed tobacco, corn, soybeans, hogs, cucumbers – a little of everything. It taught me to find something else to do. I wanted to get out.”

N.C. A&T, where he enrolled in the late ’70s, helped Barnes see agriculture, and academics, in a different way.

“A&T was a huge choice for me. I had never been around that many smart African American students before,” he said. “It really boosted my self-confidence and made me get on the ball.”

Now living in Washington, D.C., Barnes is associate administrator of the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, responsible for administration of the agency’s budget and personnel operations and overseeing implementation of the agency’s statistics program. I’ve never had any trouble with hard work, thanks to my father,” he said. “When I came to NASS, I found that my farm experience helps me communicate with farmers, ranchers and producers nationwide, which is what NASS does.”

In his 37 years of service to the agency, Barnes has served in many capacities, from working in field offices to holding several management positions at NASS headquarters prior to his current appointment. Observers may not have predicted as glowing an outcome for Kevin Barnes when he first arrived on the A&T campus.

“I was actually on academic probation when I came to campus because I’d made a D in algebra,” he said. “I was a goof-off in high school, although I was class vice president and enjoyed playing trombone in the band. I just didn’t concentrate much on my work and studies.”

But the intellectual environment at A&T was a wake-up call for Barnes. “I had to retake algebra first thing,” he said, “and I made straight As.”

He continued his hard work, majoring in agricultural economics with a concentration in agricultural business. He found mentors in Dr. Richard Robbins and Dr. Burleigh Webb, who helped him find scholarships. He settled in, played trombone in the Blue and Gold Marching Machine. In 1982, he graduated summa cum laude.

“I was a scared kid, not all polished, and they saw potential and genuinely invested in me,” Barnes said. “In the African American community, agriculture can have a stigma, because it can be associated with things like the old cotton fields days. Their good advice showed me the vastness of agriculture and the many directions you could go in.”

After graduation, Barnes took a job with the statistics agency, working in field offices in Florida, Illinois and Virginia. Back in the field, he quickly felt at home.

“Part of me still loves to get out there and smell the dirt turn,” he said. “I’ve realized that, by working here, I’m actually helping sustain this way of life.”

Barnes says he’s also proud to see the next generation finding success at NASS, where five other Aggies work with him.

“I was one of the early guys – there were just two or three other Aggies at NASS before me. Today, there are many more, and the quality is impressive. To see young folks working at such a high level, and being respected by the entire organization, makes me so proud I don’t know what to do.”