Obama makes his pick for top ag post

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Obama announced Dec. 17 that he had selected former Iowa Gov Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, as his agriculture secretary. Farm, agribusiness and consumer leaders joined lawmakers in praising Vilsack as a centrist choice wh...

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Obama announced Dec. 17 that he had selected former Iowa Gov Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, as his agriculture secretary.

Farm, agribusiness and consumer leaders joined lawmakers in praising Vilsack as a centrist choice who could represent all of agriculture, but in Vilsack's and Obama's statements there were signs of the conflicts that Vilsack and the administration will face as they try to press their priorities on agriculture, nutrition and energy policy.

Obama announced Vilsack's nomination, along with that of Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., as Interior secretary, at a news conference in Chicago. The nomination came as a surprise because Vilsack was an early favorite but had declared the transition team had not called him. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he expects a "swift confirmation" of his fellow Iowan.House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., had told Reuters earlier that he did not think a governor would be prepared for the job, but upon the announcement, he congratulated Vilsack, calling him "a strong advocate who understands the changing landscape of our nation's rural economy."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said, "Tom Vilsack is a former governor of Iowa, so he understands agriculture issues in the Northern Plains. I'm confident he will be on the side of family farmers when it comes to strengthening the farm safety net, promoting ethanol and advanced biofuels and other critical agriculture issues."

Vilsack, 58, was born in Pittsburgh and orphaned. His adoptive parents were alcoholics and he has said he was abused as a child. After graduating from law school and marrying an Iowa native, he moved to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and joined his father-in-law's law practice. He entered politics when an angry local resident shot the town's mayor in 1986 and residents asked him to run for mayor. He took a seat in the Iowa Senate in 1992 and won a long-shot race for governor in 1998. He ran for president in 2008, then supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for president but also campaigned for Obama.


Top priorities

At the news conference, Vilsack said his first priority would be to improve profitability for America's farmers and to expand opportunities in rural America while encouraging sustainable agricultural practices on land, water and forests, but he did not mention international trade. Vilsack also said he would work with other federal departments on climate change, indicating support for legislation and international treaties that many farm leaders fear will force changes in U.S. ag production methods.

Vilsack said he plans to put "nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs, an indication he will get involved in a congressional battle next year over reauthorization of child nutrition programs. Nutrition advocates want those programs to address child obesity and disease but the meat, dairy and sugar industries are likely to fight changes that would reduce federal and school purchases of their products. Robert Guenther of United Fresh, the fruit and vegetable group, said that even though Vilsack comes from a state that does not produce many of their products, he has been an advocate for fruits and vegetables in school snack programs.

Obama said that as "fiercely protective" as Vilsack is of family farmers, he also is "a leader on clean energy" who wants to move toward cellulosic ethanol, wind and solar energy production. Iowa has benefitted perhaps more than any other state from higher commodity prices because of federal support for corn-based ethanol, but neither Obama nor Vilsack mentioned corn-based ethanol during the announcement.

Praise and criticism

The Renewable Fuels Association said Vilsack "has demonstrated a commitment to continuing the innovation and evolution of America's ethanol industry." But the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes government support for corn-based ethanol, was even more enthusiastic about his appointment. In an e-mail, GMA noted that as co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Climate Change, Vilsack "indicated his understanding of the need our country has to phase out domestic subsidies for mature biofuels such as conventional corn-base ethanol and to focus on second generation, nonfood crop biofuel technologies. We view this as great opportunity for USDA to lead the way to change course when it comes to our nation's biofuels policy, moving away from the promotion of corn ethanol and toward energy solutions that do not pit our energy needs against our need for affordable food and enhanced environmental protections.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who also was a candidate for the job, said Vilsack is a "great choice." The National Wheat Growers Association, which has been struggling to develop biotech seed that will improve wheat yields and be acceptable to consumers, praised Vilsack as an advocate for biotechnology. American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman also praised Vilsack for his pro-biotech and pro-trade positions.

The Organic Consumers Association, which opposes biotechnology and was the only group to oppose his nomination, said Obama's choice of Vilsack "sent a chill through the sustainable food and farming community who have been lobbying for a champion in the new administration." Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the group added, "Vilsack's nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama administration. Our nation's future depends on crafting a forward-thinking strategy to promote organic and sustainable food and farming, and address the related crises of climate change, diminishing energy supplies, deteriorating public health and economic depression."


R-CALF USA, the cattlemen's group, said its members were reassured by Obama's statement at the news conference that he wants to make sure "that the policies being shaped . . . are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence peddlers, but family farmers and the American people.'"

The Humane Society of the United States, which advocates more humane treatment of animals raised for meat and comes into conflict with most farm groups, had urged Obama to appoint Vilsack and praised his appointment. Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said Vilsack "has the smarts and experience to bring this agency into the 21st century and to confront the enormous challenges that his predecessors have largely sidestepped. But it will be a tough job, and he'll have to steel his spine for the job ahead. Vilsack clearly has the mettle to do this; as Iowa governor, he vetoed a bill to allow the shooting of mourning doves -- an act that has saved more than 1 million doves from target shooting in the years since and cut against the conventional wisdom about disappointing and defying the (National Rifle Association) and the gun lobby. Pacelle continued, "USDA is a dinosaur, with animal welfare programs an odd fit within an agency that has as its core mission the promotion of agriculture, including the production of animals for meat, egg and dairy products. USDA leaders, acting in concert with a variety of industries, have largely viewed animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling individuals, and their policies and enforcement actions have reflected that worldview and consistently fallen short of a responsible standard of conduct for years."

The Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, where consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman is a fellow, said Vilsack "has made clear in public statements and actions his commitment to fighting hunger, supporting child nutrition programs, assuring a safe food supply and addressing water and soil conservation."

The Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy was less enthusiastic. "As Iowa's governor, Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture -- particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms -- that seems to indicate a status quo approach," IATP President Jim Harkness said. "But these are unconventional times, and with his charge to implement the national vision for agriculture of President-elect Obama, he has an opportunity to address the concerns of farmers -- big and small, organic and conventional -- and consumers, as well as environmental challenges facing the country."

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