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Senate confirms three ag officials

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on April 2 confirmed the nomination of three key Agriculture Department appointees including James Miller, a former aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., as agriculture undersecretary for farm and ...

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on April 2 confirmed the nomination of three key Agriculture Department appointees including James Miller, a former aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., as agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.

Miller, who most recently was chief of staff at the National Farmers Union, will oversee the Farm Service Agency, which distributes farm subsidies, the Foreign Agricultural Service, which promotes export sales and analyzes agriculture production in other countries, and the Risk Management Agency, which manages the crop insurance program. At his April 1 confirmation hearing, Miller promised to "meet the intent of Congress" by implementing the permanent disaster program quickly.

Expectations

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said March 31 he does not expect to make payments under that program until 2010 because his staff is finding it difficult to use USDA's aged computer system. Miller also said he would pursue a renegotiation of the standard reinsurance agreement that determines the relationship between the government and crop insurance companies. The 2008 farm bill called for a renegotiation.

Miller grew up and farmed in eastern Washington state and is a past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

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More appointments

The Senate also confirmed Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University professor and former aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to be deputy agriculture secretary; and Joe Leonard Jr., an aide to Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be agriculture assistant secretary for civil rights.

The confirmation hearing went smoothly for the nominees, but Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Merrigan, the author of many academic articles, that he was "concerned" that "in promoting your passion for organic production and sustainable agriculture, you tear down other types of agriculture with different points of view."

Chambliss told Merrigan that her job at USDA "won't be to focus on your personal interests or to promote one type of agriculture at the expense of another," but to help run the entire department.

Merrigan, who helped write the USDA organic program when she worked for Leahy, responded she recognizes that organic agriculture is only "small slice of the pie, two to three percent" of U.S. agriculture. Merrigan said she hopes to help "the important, middle sized" farms through conservation programs and that she understands "reality" that big farms are responsible for most agricultural production.

Of her writings, Merrigan said, "I've always been a provocateur. That's part of my personality."

But she added that when she was administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service in the Clinton administration, she worked on many conventional USDA agriculture programs including milk marketing orders, checkoffs and commodity purchases for feeding programs.

Merrigan also said she had told her students at Tufts not to "vilify" big farmers or make small farmers into heroes, but to "talk about making American agriculture work."

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Nominations in waiting

President Obama has also nominated Farm Credit Administration board member Dallas Tonsager, a South Dakotan, to be undersecretary for rural development; Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, also South Dakotan, to be administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, and Krysta Harden, an official with the National Association of Conservation Districts to be assistant secretary for congressional relations. Confirmation hearings have not been held on those nominees.

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