Schafer at USDA's 150th

FARGO, N.D. -- Former Agriculture secretaries Ed Schafer from North Dakota and Bob Bergland from Minnesota have been invited to Washington, D.C., to be among dignitaries gathered for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual Ag Outlook Forum.

Ed Schafer
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer sits in his office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., on his first morning on the job, Jan. 29, 2008. He returned to the Capitol last week as one of the eight living agriculture secretaries, as part of the annual Ag Outlook Forum, Feb. 23-24, in Arlington, Va. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

FARGO, N.D. -- Former Agriculture secretaries Ed Schafer from North Dakota and Bob Bergland from Minnesota have been invited to Washington, D.C., to be among dignitaries gathered for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual Ag Outlook Forum.

Schafer, a former North Dakota governor who served during the last year of the George Bush administration, says the event will include a panel of eight agriculture secretaries, including current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and eight former ag secretaries -- Schafer, 2008-2009; U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., 2005-2007; Ann M. Veneman, 2001-2005; Daniel Glickman, 1995-2001; Mike Espy, 1993-1994; Clayton Yeutter, 1989-1991; John Block, 1981-1986; and Bergland, 1977-1981.

Schafer served as ag secretary from Jan. 28, 2008 to Jan. 20, 2009. He followed Michael Johanns, who served Jan. 21, 2007 to Sept. 20, 2007, but left the post to run for the U.S. Senate seat from Nebraska. Ann Veneman of California was Bush's first ag secretary, serving Jan. 20, 2001 to Jan. 20, 2005.

Part of a panel

The former secretaries were part of a panel, titled "Agriculture: Visions of the Future," moderated by Vilsack.


For his part, Schafer says that at the USDA event, he planned to talk about how the Bush administration had come in with suggested farm program reforms -- some caps on net farm income qualifications, and adjustments in the definition of "active farming" participants for qualifying for certain farm program benefits. He says taxpayers have a hard time understanding "huge corporate farmers that get millions of dollars in subsidies" and leaving insufficient money for the "active, independent producer" who might be "wiped out with a hail event, and barely get his inputs paid for."

Schafer says there is also need for reform in crop insurance, to protect the small percentage of Americans who farm, because the U.S. should not become dependent on foreign producers. He says agriculture needs to have "real business interruption insurance" like other sectors have.

In the current farm program discussions, Schafer is concerned that the 15 percent of the farm bill that has to do with production agriculture will take a disproportionate share of the cuts.

Schafer says he was pleased that Vilsack announced the closing of some little-used Farm Service Agency field offices, and says some of those closures make sense for efficiency.

No portrait yet

Schafer told Agweek the event would not include the unveiling of his official portrait painting, commemorating his time at USDA. Former agriculture secretaries are immortalized in paintings that hang in the "patio" of the Jamie L. Whitten USDA Headquarters building.

The patio is the central ceremonial gathering space in the building, completed in 1930 and in 1995 was renamed for Whitten, the former Mississippi congressman who served as chairman of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee.

Schafer, 65, who served as governor of North Dakota from 1992 to 2000, was appointed to the ag post by Bush, a friend and former governor of Texas.


He says he questioned USDA staff whether he would be the subject of a portrait after serving just short of a year in the post, but was told that it is a tradition. Initially, Schafer talked to a short list of USDA-approved portrait artists, but decided he wanted something different and not quite as photographic.

As governor, Schafer had worked on protecting grasslands in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and grew to love the work of Brett Smith, 53, based in the Baton Rouge, La., area.

Smith had painted "Valley of the Elkhorn," a view of Teddy Roosevelt, standing with a horse, looking over the North Dakota Badlands. "I really liked the lighting that this painter uses," Schafer says. Schafer owns a print of the painting, but learned that a friend, Lowell Baier, of Bethesda, Md., president emeritus of the Boone and Crockett Club, owned the original. Schafer asked Baier if he could hang the painting in his USDA office during his tenure, and it was done.

When the portraiture issue came up, Schafer thought of Smith.

Smith, who isn't known for portraits, accepted the commission as an artistic challenge. The two decided the painting would be in context with other secretaries -- usually in a suit, but it would be a "painting instead of a photo."

A committee at USDA had to approve the artist and the subject matter. Ed and his wife, Nancy, sent photos of Schafer from various settings. There were initial charcoal sketches, and eventually a painting. After minor tweaks, to capture Schafer's optimistic countenance, the painting was delivered. In the painting, Schafer is in a suit, standing at his desk in Washington, D.C., with Smith's "Valley of the Elkhorn" painting in the background.

The portrait is crated at USDA, and awaiting its unveiling at some future point, Schafer says. It's big, perhaps three feet tall, Schafer says.

Bergland didn't return phone messages left at his Roseau, Minn., home.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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