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US Department of Agriculture

Vilsack caught up in beltway scandal du jour (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 10:16:02 AM CDT

Rarely are secretaries of agriculture near the center of attention in Washington, but Tom Vilsack is in the hot seat after abetting the right-wing noise machine's latest attempt to undermine the Obama administration. On Monday an African-American US Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, was sacked because a right-wing website made her appear to have discriminated against a white farmer.

Sherrod, USDA's rural development director for Georgia, said she was ordered to resign on Monday after a video, posted on one of Andrew Breitbart's conservative sites, showed her saying she had not given a white farmer her "full force."

The NAACP later posted the full, unedited video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and it showed the remarks had been taken out of context in the version posted by Breitbart. Breitbart had said that he had posted the full version he was given. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now 87, appeared on CNN from his Georgia home and said Sherrod had been "helpful in every way - she saved our farm."

Vilsack should know better than to validate a phony right-wing narrative, but he's never been a happy partisan warrior. I'm not surprised he kicked a USDA official to the curb instead of waiting to hear all the facts. He probably hoped to kill this "news" story before it gained momentum. The problem is, he has created more incentive for Obama's opponents to gin up fake scandals. Vilsack also damaged his own reputation. Lots of people will want answers to the questions Greg Sargent asks today:

Now that the full Shirley Sherrod video has been released, vindicating her completely, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is  promising to undertake a review of her firing. So maybe he will re-instate her after all.

But it isn't enough for Vilsack to reinstate her. People should demand that his review include an explanation for his own decision to fire her. We need to hear his justification for the decision to ax this woman before all the facts were in, on the strength of nothing more than an Andrew Breitbart smear.

Did Vilsack make any effort to learn more about her speech before giving her the push? If not, why not? Sherrod says she told top USDA officials that the full speech would vindicate her. Did anyone at USDA give her protestations even a passing listen? Did anyone try to obtain video of the full speech? If not, why not? Why was Breitbart's word alone allowed to drive such a high-profile decision?

People should also demand that the White House weigh in publicly on what happened here. The White House has only discussed this via anonymous leaks, and this morning, officials are conveniently leaking word that the White House prodded Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod's firing. That's nice, but was the White House told in advance that the firing was about to happen, and if so, why did it allow the firing to proceed?

The White House looks bad for supporting Vilsack's rush to judgment, then backing off when the full video of Sherrod's remarks appeared. But ultimately, this was Vilsack's mistake. Let's hope he learned the right lessons from it.

UPDATE: Charles Lemos posted the full video of Sherrod's speech and his reaction to it. It's worth a read.

SECOND UPDATE: Vilsack has apologized and offered Sherrod another USDA position. I've posted the video after the jump. Good for him; it's not always easy for politicians to admit a mistake. TPMDC reported today,

In response to a question from TPMDC, Vilsack called the debacle "a teachable moment for me." He admitted that Sherrod had received advance notice of Breitbart's intention to (mis)use the clip and had attempted to inform her superiors, including Vilsack, by email -- but the email did not get through, and thus her superiors' first contact with her regarding the incident was after Breitbart's release of the clip.
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One of the "sustainable dozen" will replace John Norris at USDA

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 13:34:39 PM CST

I was pleased to read in the Sunday Des Moines Register that the new chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will be Karen Ross, former head of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Ross was one of the "sustainable dozen" candidates that Food Democracy Now recommended for under-secretary positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last January Food Democracy Now told its supporters that Ross was getting serious consideration for a USDA post.

It's encouraging to know that a voice for family farmers and sustainable practices will be running Vilsack's office. In recommending Ross for an under-secretary position at the USDA, Michael Dimock of Roots of Change wrote more than a year ago,

Karen will represent well the diverse crops of our nation's largest agricultural state. We know she will be a voice of innovation and adaptation that will support full expression of a sustainable agriculture over time. She did a great job shepherding the State Board's recent visioning process for agriculture that rendered what we see as a very constructive vision for our future. Karen has also been a defining and constructive voice in the [Roots of Change]-funded California Roundtable for Agriculture and the Environment.

The visioning process Dimock mentions was California Ag Vision, an "effort to develop a broad consensus on how California might arrive at a farming and food system that can be sustained by the year 2030."

Ross will replace John Norris, who did not come from an agriculture background but had worked closely with Vilsack for years in Iowa. He agreed to be Vilsack's chief of staff at USDA with the understanding that it would be a temporary position. Norris was pursuing a spot on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to which the Senate confirmed him in December. Having completed his work as Vilsack's chief of staff, Norris will start work next week at the FERC.

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Vilsack declines pork industry request (for now)

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 22:54:03 PM CDT

Following up on the request by nine governors and pork industry giants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $50 million on excess pork products, Radio Iowa reported on Tuesday that the USDA can't help right now:

"We are down to our last $7 or 8 million because there's been such a demand for so many kinds of commodities, including pork. I think in the last fiscal year $62 million worth of pork purchases have been made," [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack says. "...So we are trying to meet the demands of everyone."

Vilsack says there may be more money in the pipeline this fall. "When October 1 comes, when the new fiscal year starts, we have a little greater flexibility and at that time we are taking a look at all these requests," Vilsack says, "and we will make determinations at that point in time in terms of what is being requested of us and what we think makes sense." [...]

"We are very sensitive to the concerns of the pork industry. We have tried to respond by asking our institutional purchasers like the Department of Defense and others to purchase more pork products. We'll continue to do that," Vilsack says. "But I think we are stuck by virtue of the amount of money left in the account that we use to do this, but in October 1 it gets replenished and we'll be in a different position."

Meanwhile, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement makes it easy for you to e-mail Governor Chet Culver to tell him you oppose taxpayer-funded bailouts of factory farms.

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Dave Murphy is working to strengthen rural economies

by: desmoinesdem

Tue May 26, 2009 at 09:28:47 AM CDT

The Des Moines Register profiled Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now in Monday's edition. The article mentioned the incredible success of the petition signed by more than 94,000 Americans. Two of the "sustainable dozen" candidates whom Food Democracy Now recommended for U.S. Department of Agriculture posts now work for the department. Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton, also on the sustainable dozen list, is an "informal adviser" to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

You should read the whole Des Moines Register article. The most important passage is about how Murphy makes the case for changing agriculture policies:

[Murphy] pointed to a survey from the Organic Trade Association that showed that the U.S. sales of organic food grew nearly 16 percent between 2007 and 2008 to reach $22.9 billion. Organic foods now account for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. food sales.

For Murphy, sustainable farming is about more than the food.

He sees it as returning to a model of production that is better for the environment and one in which farmers can start without taking on deep debt to finance heavy equipment.

He said the agricultural policies today are stacked against farmers of small- to mid-sized farms in favor of larger operations. [...]

Murphy stressed that he isn't against large farm operations. He said sustainable practices can help farms of all sizes.

But Murphy does believe that the playing field ought to be leveled, for the benefit not just for smaller farms but for rural areas in general.

"That's the best way to improve rural economies," he said. "The more farmers there are on the land, the better it is for rural economies."

Health and environmental concerns sparked my interest in buying local food produced sustainably, but Murphy is wise to connect the dots between agriculture policies and the economic future of rural areas. For more along those lines, read the feature on Murphy and Food Democracy Now from the Washington Post in March.

Speaking of Iowans who are incredibly committed to helping small and medium-sized farms thrive, Woodbury County's rural economic development director Rob Marqusee has pledged to "eat only food grown within 100 miles of the Woodbury County Courthouse for the entire month of June 09 (and no meat will be allowed in the diet)." Keep an eye on Marqusee's Woodbury Organics site next month, because he'll be blogging about his food challenge.

Those interested in Murphy's work should go read more on the Food Democracy Now site. Click here for past Bleeding Heartland posts that referenced Food Democracy Now's work. Jill Richardson wrote more here about Murphy's activist roots and the role he played during the Iowa caucus campaign.

If organic farmer Francis Thicke decides to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010, expanding local food networks will be a major theme of his campaign.

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Important news for organic and transitioning farmers

by: desmoinesdem

Tue May 05, 2009 at 19:45:09 PM CDT

In March I asked readers to submit public comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture advocating for organic farmers to receive more money under USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

I'm happy to pass along good news on this front:

Speaking today to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced $50 Million for a new initiative to meet the Obama Administration's promise to encourage more organic agriculture production. Funding for the initiative is being made available as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

"Assisting organic producers is a priority of the 2008 Farm Bill as well as for Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration," said Merrigan. "The objective of this initiative is to make organic food producers eligible to compete for EQIP financial assistance."

The 2009 Organic Initiative is a nationwide special initiative to provide financial assistance to National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic producers as well as producers in the process of transitioning to organic production. Organic producers may also apply for assistance under general EQIP.

Under the Organic Initiative required minimum core conservation practices will be determined by specific resource concerns. The practices are: Conservation Crop Rotation; Cover Crop; Nutrient Management; Pest Management; Prescribed Grazing; and Forage Harvest Management. States must consider using any appropriate practice that meets the resource concern on a particular operation.

(hat tip to Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore)

Here's some background courtesy of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

The organic conversion assistance was provided for by the 2008 Farm Bill but the plan went awry when the Bush Administration issued rules for the EQIP program just before leaving office which baffled state and local offices of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  As a result, in a majority of states organic farmers and transitioning farmers were simply not being served, in contradiction of Congress' intent in the farm bill.

"This was a was a wrong that needed righting, and with today's announcement USDA is not only setting it right, but doing so in an innovative and farmer-friendly manner," said Aimee Witteman, NSAC Executive Director.  "We thank NRCS and USDA leadership for listening to the concerns of organic farmers and applaud their new initiative."

Note: farmers must apply for these special EQIP funds between May 11 and May 29.

Kudos to Tom Vilsack for getting behind a policy that will help producers meet the growing demand for organic food. Today's announcement is a victory for the environment, farmers and groups involved in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. It's also clear that Food Democracy Now knew what they were doing when they included Merrigan on their "sustainable dozen" list for the USDA.  

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Last day to help end "factory farm bailout"

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Apr 17, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM CDT

Last month I posted about efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce the share of conservation funds that large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) receive through the USDA's Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP).

Food Democracy Now sent out an action alert on Thursday reminding supporters that comments on making EQIP work for sustainable and organic farmers must be received by the USDA by the close of business on April 17 (today).

You can fax your letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (202-720-4265) or submit your comments online (Food Democracy Now has instructions on that process).

Click here and scroll down the page for talking points and a sample letter on this issue. However, it's always better to put these things in your own words if possible. I've posted Food Democracy Now's sample letter after the jump. If you are writing your own letter, make sure it goes to the correct address and says this near the top:

Re: Docket Number NRCS- IFR-08005 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Final Rules

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Last day for comments on closing corporate farm subsidy loophole (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Apr 05, 2009 at 17:45:08 PM CDT

UPDATE: According to Food Democracy Now, the relevant USDA official's e-mail inbox is full and bouncing back messages.

Please send you comments to: Dan McGlynn via Mara Villegas at: mara.villegas@wdc.usda.gov
[...]

At this point you can do 1 of 3 things:

1. You can resend your comments to mara.villegas@wdc.usda.gov
2. Fax the letter in at: (202) 690-2130
3. Go to Regulation.gov and send your letter in using that website form.

http://www.regulations.gov/fdm...

If you go to Regulations.gov please realize that it is a several step process in order to submit your comments.

We have provided the proper steps to follow on our website.

http://www.fooddemocracynow.or...

Thanks again for all you do, we appreciate your continued efforts on this important subject.

I received an e-mail alert from Food Democracy Now today, informing me that the public comment period for a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule on farm payment limits ends at the close of business on Monday, April 6.

President Barack Obama promised during his budget speech to a joint session of Congress in February to "end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them." Food Democracy Now's action alert noted,

As part of his 2010 budget, the President proposed phasing-out direct payments in an attempt to save $9.8 billion over 10 years. Currently direct payments, which total $5.2 billion a year, are paid regardless of crop prices and are not tied to need.

This means: Even in times of high commodity prices, corporate farmers still get a paycheck from the government.

End Unfair Subsidies Now!

In mentioning unfair agribusiness subsidies, the President let supporters and agribusiness know that he's serious about defending the rights of family farmers and giving them access to fair market conditions.

Today's current subsidy system allows large corporate farms to take advantage of subsidy loopholes that place independent family farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Because of loosely written management and labor requirements in the Farm Bill, corporate farmers are allowed to use multiple partnerships, passive investors and sham "paper" farms to funnel huge multimillion dollar annual subsidy payments to corporate entities that don't do any real work on the farm, but use the ownership as an entitlement to bilk payments from the government.

As a result, giant corporate millionaire "farmers" are driving independent family farmers off the land, using their ill-gotten gains, supplied courtesy of taxpayers, to outbid small, midsized and new farmers who want to buy or rent new crop ground.

Food Democracy Now provided a sample e-mail that you can cope and paste into your own message. I've posted it after the jump, and you can also find it here.

If you can put the message in your own words, that's wonderful, but any comment you can send by the close of business on Monday is better than nothing.

However you write the main text of your message, put this in the subject line:

Comment on Farm Program Payment Limitation Rule, Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 23, February 5, 2009
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Is Obama putting a Monsanto exec in charge of food safety?

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 16:09:23 PM CST

(UPDATE: Jill Richardson's sources differ on whether these appointments are imminent.)

I received a disturbing action alert today from Food Democracy Now about who may oversee food safety regulations in the new administration. (Note: I got the action alert via e-mail, and it hasn't been posted yet at the Food Democracy Now website. The link above is to the organization's main page.)

Excerpt:

There's a possibility that former Monsanto executive Michael Taylor and irradiation proponent Dr. Michael Osterholm will be named to top food safety spots in the new Administration. [...]
1. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, whose career literally fits the definition of the revolving door between government, lobbying and corporate interests. Before serving on the Obama ag transition team, Taylor made a name for himself rotating in and out of law firms, Monsanto, the USDA and FDA. While at the FDA he helped write the rules to allow rBGH into the American food system and our children's milk.

Now we've learned that Taylor may be in line to run an office in the White House on food safety!

2.  On Monday, Secretary Vilsack is set to announce the appointment of Dr. Michael Osterholm, a food safety expert, to lead the Food Safety agency at the USDA. According to Food  & Water Watch, Osterholm has been "a zealot in promoting th[e] controversial technology (of irradiation) as the panacea to contaminated food."

Irradiation allows food processors to nuke disease from contaminated food at the end of the production line, while ignoring the root problems that create unsafe food.

For Osterholm, the recent peanut butter fiasco apparently was just another example of how irradiation could save the day. "Clearly it's a problem where the raw peanut butter or paste is consumed and not cooked," Osterholm said.

Food Democracy Now wants people to e-mail Vilsack immediately, asking him to block these appointments. The action alert included a sample e-mail, which I've posted after the jump, but it's always better to write this kind of letter in your own words.

You may recall that in November, the Organic Consumers Association came out strongly against Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, largely because of his connections to Monsanto and other biotech companies. But it's worth noting that President Obama put Michael Taylor on his transition team before he chose Vilsack to run the USDA. If Taylor does end up running a White House food safety office, don't pin that mistake on Vilsack.  

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Stop letting factory farms hog USDA conservation funds

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 22:28:05 PM CST

Jill Richardson has an action alert up at La Vida Locavore regarding new rules for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP). She lays out the problem with the status quo:

A report (Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough by Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. Wise, Dec 2008) found that nationally, factory hog farms comprise 10.7% of all hog operations - but get 37% of all of the EQIP contracts. Factory farm dairies make up 3.9% of all dairy farms - but they get 54% of EQIP contracts. All in all, between 2003 and 2007, 1000 factory hog and dairy farms ate up $35 million in EQIP conservation funding.

This happened at the expense of smaller farms that COULD HAVE gotten the money. Mid-sized hog farms make up 15% of hog operations but got 5.4% of EQIP contracts. Mid-sized dairy farms make up 13% of dairies - and got 7% of contracts.

This report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that confined animal feeding operations "have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years" through EQIP.

Do you think CAFOs should be able to hog taxpayer dollars intended for conservation programs? Neither do I. More important, neither does Congress:

USDA was directed by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill to make EQIP more inclusive of organic agriculture practices - including implementing a new provision that assists farmers converting to organic farming systems and rewarding the conservation benefits of organic farming. However, USDA fell far short of meeting this directive in their [Interim Final Rule for EQIP].

We have until March 16 to submit public comments urging the USDA to make EQIP more organic-friendly, as Congress stipulated last year. There is a clear public interest in helping more farmers meet the growing demand for organic food. As a side benefit, directing more EQIP funds to organic farms would be a step toward making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause.

For details on how to submit your comments on this issue, click here or here.

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Vilsack axes $500K in USDA consulting contracts

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 04, 2009 at 15:30:33 PM CST

Good for him:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he killed about half a million dollars worth of consulting contracts approved by Bush administration political appointees near the end of President Bush's term.

"The career folks who watched this process unfold in the last waning days of the last administration were very concerned about the process-the connections and relationships between people receiving this half a million dollar contract and what they intended to do with the resource which the career folks felt was unnecessary and inappropriate," Vilsack said during a guest appearance at the daily White House press briefing. "They made a very strong and powerful case to me that the process was not followed as it should have been."

Vilsack did not explain precisely what consulting the contract was to involve, but he said it seemed unnecessary.

"I didn't see any value to USDA from it. I will tell you it was rather startling to see that a substantial amount of money had already been spent on foreign travel under circumstances we did not think was appropriate," the secretary said.

More details are at the Politico. Thanks to my fellow Iowa blogger Chris Woods for bringing the story to my attention.

This news is obviously related to President Barack Obama's directive to all the heads of government agencies to restrict no-bid contracts and crack down on wasteful contracts.

(cross-posted at La Vida Locavore, which you really should be reading)

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To stimulate the economy, increase food stamp participation rates

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 25, 2009 at 14:50:26 PM CST

Jill Richardson's post on extremely low food stamp participation rates in San Diego got me wondering how well Iowa does in getting eligible people enrolled in this program.

Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I'd like to see 100 percent of people who qualify for food stamps get them, just for the sake of reducing hunger in our communities.

But let's leave ethical concerns aside for now. Economic researchers, most recently Moody's Economy.com, have calculated that expanding the food-stamp program produces more economic stimulus than any other kind of government spending, and much more than any form of tax cuts.  Every additional dollar spent on food stamps translates into $1.73 circulating in the economy.

This page on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website contains links to many studies comparing the state participation rates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name for the food stamp program). All of the recent annual reports are pdf files you can download.

The report for 2004 put Iowa in 22nd place for food stamp participation and estimated that 61 percent of the 286,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them.

The report for 2005 ranked Iowa 24th and estimated that 66 percent of the 307,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them.

The report for 2006 ranked Iowa 20th and estimated that 71 percent of the 309,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them. Data for 2007 and 2008 are not yet available on the USDA site.

As you can see, Iowa is doing a little better at getting food stamps to the people who qualify for them, but we have a long way to go to match the states near the top. In the top three states, more than 90 percent of people eligible for food stamps are getting them. That figure is above 80 percent for the next five states.

Increasing Iowa's food stamp enrollment rate from 71 percent to 80 percent would translate to nearly 30,000 more people receiving food stamps in our state. If we could get food stamp participation above 90 percent, roughly 60,000 more Iowans would be receiving food stamps. Those people would consequently have more to spend on other goods and services. Many retailers would benefit as the money flowed through the economy.

I don't know exactly what needs to be done to further improve Iowa's food stamp participation rate. There's a lot of research on the USDA site on factors that affect enrollment. I would welcome comments or a diary from someone with expertise in this area about what Iowa's doing well already and what we need to do better.

Given the multiplier effect of food stamp benefits on economic activity, this program merits attention from policy-makers looking to stimulate the economy. Government spending on infrastructure projects is worthwhile (as long as we fix what we have first), but let's not ignore other efficient ways of sparking more economic activity.

To my conservative readers who start hyperventilating at the thought of more people receiving government assistance: don't think of it as extra food for families struggling to get by. Think of it as a fast way to save jobs in the retail sector--with a lot more bang for the buck than tax cuts.  

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Two of the "Sustainable Dozen" getting serious consideration at USDA

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM CST

Food Democracy Now reported in an e-mail to supporters yesterday that two of the "sustainable dozen" candidates the organization has endorsed for positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are "under serious consideration for Deputy Secretary": Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs and  Karen Ross of the California Winegrape Growers Association and the Winegrape Growers of America.

More than 80,000 people have signed Food Democracy Now's petition supporting sustainable change at the USDA. Click here to sign the petition or click here to forward it to like-minded friends if you have already signed. You can kick in a few bucks to help keep Food Democracy Now going by donating here.

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Vilsack unanimously confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 19:34:54 PM CST

Congratulations are in order to Tom Vilsack today. As I predicted, the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of Agriculture by a unanimous vote. The same measure, approved shortly after Barack Obama's inauguration, also confirmed five of the new president's other appointees: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and White House Budget Office director Peter Orszag.

The Sunday Des Moines Register ran an article featuring Drake University Law Professor Neil Hamilton, who predicted that Vilsack will do more to reform the US Department of Agriculture than some of his critics anticipate:

His critics see Vilsack as "coming from only part of agriculture, and I don't think that probably is accurate," Hamilton said in an interview after Vilsack's Senate confirmation hearing last week. Hamilton, who has long been an advocate of locally grown food systems, a priority of Vilsack's critics, attended the hearing and chatted with the former governor afterward.

Hamilton persuaded Vilsack as governor to form a state food policy council to promote local food systems, among other ideas.

At last week's Senate confirmation hearing, Vilsack promised to promote local foods.

Discussing Vilsack's record on agriculture issues, Hamilton told the Des Moines Register that

Vilsack couldn't have been expected to be anything but an advocate of biotechnology or ethanol when he was governor. "It would have been hard to be the governor of Iowa, just as it's hard to be the senator from Illinois, without being a supporter of ethanol," Hamilton said in a reference to Obama, a leading supporter of corn ethanol as an Illinois senator.

"The fact that you can see a role for genetic modification and science in agriculture doesn't necessarily mean you don't also see an opportunity for local food and organic" agriculture, Hamilton continued. [...]

Hamilton said he is "very confident that whether it's a year, two years, or four years, that most of the people" who signed the Food Democracy Now! petition "will be impressed and pleased" with Vilsack.

Hamilton was one of the six potential nominees for secretary of agriculture on the Food Democracy Now! petition. He is also one of the "sustainable dozen" that Food Democracy Now! is recommending for undersecretary posts within the USDA.

Those senior USDA appointments will set the tone for Vilsack's tenure. I have no idea whether any of the "sustainable dozen" have a chance to be hired. Unfortunately, Jill Richardson reports that some strong advocates for industrial agriculture are being considered for high-ranking positions: Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff may become deputy secretary of agriculture, and Joy Philippi, former past president of the National Pork Producers Council, may become an undersecretary of the USDA. (In 2007, Philippi was a co-chair of Rural Americans for Hillary.)

Today, I am hopeful that Hamilton, who knows Vilsack well, is right about the governor's plans for the USDA.

I look forward to writing regularly here about the Obama administration's food and agriculture policies. La Vida Locavore will be following these issues in even more detail, so bookmark that blog if you are interested in these subjects.

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Highlights and analysis of the Vilsack confirmation hearing

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jan 15, 2009 at 10:23:10 AM CST

Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama's cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn't ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn't have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner's failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Here are some highlights.

Vilsack told senators on Wednesday that

The Obama administration wants to accelerate the development of new versions of biofuels made form crop residue and non-food crops such as switchgrass. The plants' fibrous material, or cellulose, can be converted into alcohols or even new versions of gasoline or diesel.

"Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond" to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said.

Vilsack addressed a range of other issues, pledging, for example, to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and promising to ensure that any new international trade agreement is a "net plus for all of agriculture."

It makes a lot of sense to produce ethanol from perennial plants that are less energy-intensive to grow and need fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than corn.

Vilsack's opening statement also

promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.

A little later during the hearing, Vilsack described the Conservation Stewardship Program as important for the environment and cited its potential to boost farm income and create jobs.

By the way, Vilsack's disclosure documents show that he collects payments from the US Department of Agriculture on some Iowa farmland he and his wife own:

The former Iowa governor and his wife, Christie, have been receiving payments since 2000 for an acreage in Davis County that is enrolled in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, according to USDA data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

In a Jan. 8 letter to USDA ethics officials, Vilsack said he would seek a waiver to continue receiving CRP payments while he is secretary. Otherwise, experts said, he would have to break his contract and reimburse the USDA for all previous payments he has received, which would total nearly $60,000.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, welcomed having an agriculture secretary who receives conservation payments.

At a time "when simultaneously protecting our soil, water, wildlife habitat and climate is an urgent priority, it is encouraging that our new secretary of agriculture is personally participating in a conservation program that does just that," he said.

I'm with Cox; it's good for the secretary of agriculture to have first-hand knowledge of the conservation reserve program's value.

Earlier this week the Register published an article on the opening statement Vilsack prepared for his confirmation hearing:

Tom Vilsack is promising to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "aggressively address" global warming and energy independence.

In an opening statement prepared for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for agriculture secretary also said he would use the department to "create real and meaningful opportunities" for farmers and to guarantee that rural communities grow and prosper. [...]

Vilsack, a former mayor of Mount Pleasant, also said rural communities continue to lose population and "find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."

He pledged to try to resolve the long-standing civil rights claims against the department.

"If I'm confirmed, the message will be clear: discrimination in any form will not be tolerated," Vilsack said.

After reading that Register article, La Vida Locavore's Jill Richardson commented,

I want to see our subsidy structure change to reward farmers for sustainability instead of yield. I want the government to ease the financial risk on any farmer transitioning to organic because it appears to me that being an organic farmer isn't so bad on your bank account, but transitioning alone might break several farmers financially. I want to outlaw CAFOs altogether. But will Vilsack do this? Let me just say this: I am so confident he won't that I promise now to entirely shave my head if he DOES do each of these 3 things.

I think we can all agree that Jill is not going to look like Sinead O'Connor anytime soon. I totally agree with her first two suggestions. As for CAFOs, it's not realistic to expect them to be banned, but I believe they would be greatly reduced in number and size (over time) if government policy made them pay for the harm they cause.

On a more encouraging note, I read this at the U.S. Food Policy blog:

Some highlights included Vilsack's encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition. "It's going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children's diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products" and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said.

Maybe Vilsack and Daschle will take some of Angie Tagtow's excellent advice on how their agencies can work together to improve human health. I would also encourage them to read this recent piece by Steph Larsen: "For healthy food and soil, we need affordable health care for farmers."

I am curious about what Vilsack means by "supporting those who supply" locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. One problem with our current agricultural policy is that commodity farmers lose all federal subsidies if they put more than two acres into growing fruits or vegetables. Apparently that was the price needed to get California's Congressional delegation to vote for various farm bills over the years. Even though almost no subsidies go directly to California farmers, this penalty limits the competition California growers might otherwise face from Midwestern farmers.

So, very little of the produce consumed by Iowans is grown in Iowa, and our grocery stores are full of produce trucked in from thousands of miles away. Most of the crops Iowa farmers grow are inedible for humans without processing.

A few years back the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University published a report on "Food, Fuel and Freeways." It showed how far food travels to Iowans and how much Iowans could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we increased the proportion of locally-grown food in our diets to even 10 percent of what we eat.

Getting back to the Vilsack hearing, members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee made some notable comments yesterday. who questioned Vilsack made some notable comments on Wednesday. Iowa's own Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, gave Vilsack a warm welcome:

"I just couldn't be more proud to see you sitting there. I don't think President-elect [Barack] Obama could have picked a better person for this position," Harkin said.

Harkin also discussed federal child nutrition programs:

Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin , D-Iowa, said reauthorization of a law (PL 108-265) governing school lunches and other child nutrition programs "is really the only thing that we have to do this year." [...]

During the hearing, Harkin said he will propose that the Department of Agriculture use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for junk food sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they aren't a part of subsidized lunches.

During the last renewal of the child nutrition act, then-Gov. Vilsack wrote a letter to lawmakers and the Bush administration expressing concern about childhood obesity and the problem of vending machine snacks that compete with school meals.

At the time, Vilsack backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line. Nutrition advocates want junk food kicked out of schools, but many schools use the cash from sales to cover the rising costs of meal services.

(Side note: the state of Iowa is now considering banning the sale of junk food in public schools.)

Meanwhile, Iowa's Republican Senator Chuck Grassley urged Vilsack to act quickly on several other fronts, including rule-making that would protect smaller volume livestock producers. Also, Grassley and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack asking him to close a loophole affecting commodity program payment limits. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, explains that "This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit."

According to Hoefner,

Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn't time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic.  Vilsack said we need to "celebrate and support" organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes.  Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.

The Ethicurean blog published an excerpt of Roberts' insult to "small family farmers":

That small family farmer is about 5'2" ... and he's a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman's Quarterly - he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab - and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he's very happy to have that.

How disappointing that an imbecile like this could easily get re-elected in Kansas. Roberts' caricature does not resemble any of the sustainable farmers I know. They work just as hard as Roberts' idealized "production agriculture farmer" but don't receive any federal subsidies, despite growing high-quality food and being good stewards of the land.

If you haven't already done so, please go to the Food Democracy Now site and sign their new petition recommending 12 good candidates for undersecretary positions at the USDA. These will be important appointments, since Vilsack won't single-handedly be setting the USDA's policy direction.

The Center for Rural Affairs has also launched a petition worth signing, which urges Vilsack to implement a number of programs that would benefit farmers and rural economies.

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Department of odd omissions

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 01:20:34 AM CST

I wasn't surprised in November when the Des Moines Register failed to report on opposition to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack's possible appointment as secretary of agriculture.

I wasn't surprised in December when the newspaper omitted the same perspective from its piece on reaction to the news that President-elect Barack Obama was picking Vilsack for the job.

But I find this January 12 Des Moines Register article by Chase Davis quite odd. The subject is how Vilsack has relatively few ties to agribusiness. Excerpt:

Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack raised only a small portion of his campaign cash from farmers, grocers and others with direct ties to the agriculture industry, despite serving eight years as governor in one of the country's most emblematic farming states, documents and fundraising data show.

From his first run for governor in 1998 to his short-lived presidential bid in 2006, Vilsack raised almost $15.8 million through contributions to his campaign and political action committees. Only about 2.3 percent, or $364,000, came directly from interests connected to agriculture.

Political observers said the small share of industry donations Vilsack received could earn him credibility and a perception of independence as he prepares for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. Others note the agricultural industry has long exerted its political influence through connections, not money.

"(Agriculture businesses) are much more human than a lot of other businesses. They have a very tight network," said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "Money is maybe not the prime indicator there."

To the extent that influence follows money, Vilsack can make a convincing case that he is not beholden to the agribusiness industry - which could serve him well in the position, local experts said.

Agribusiness "will have more trouble getting everything they want, and they know it," said Arthur Sanders, chairman of the Politics and International Relations Department at Drake University.

But if companies do convince Vilsack to support their policies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack "will have more credibility if he pushes for them," Sanders said.

The article baffles me on two levels. It ranks Vilsack's "top political donors associated with agribusiness interests," and number one on the list is the philanthropist Doris Jean Newlin, whose husband was a vice president of Pioneer Hi-Bred International before he retired.

Newlin has made significant gifts to quite a few Democratic politicians, the Iowa Democratic Party, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It's a stretch to consider her donations to Vilsack's campaigns the most noteworthy link between Vilsack and agribusiness, just because Newlin is married to a retired vice-president of Pioneer.

What makes the article even more strange is that it does not mention biotech companies. Vilsack was an outspoken and persistent advocate for growing more genetically-engineered crops in Iowa and elsewhere. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him governor of the year in 2001. He even used to fly on the Monsanto corporate jet. What opposition there was to Vilsack's appointment as secretary of agriculture stemmed primarily from his many ties to biotechnology companies like Monsanto.  

Vilsack may well have fewer connections to agribusiness than others who have headed the USDA. I think the Senate should confirm him, given that he is the president's choice, and he is certainly qualified for the job.

But it was quite a strange editorial decision by the Register to publish a whole article about Vilsack not having strong ties to corporate agriculture, while failing to mention any of his connections to the biotechnology industry. If you're going to report a story, at least report the whole story.

Discuss :: (1 Comments)

Food Democracy Now pushing "sustainable dozen" for USDA jobs

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jan 09, 2009 at 08:46:58 AM CST

In November, Food Democracy Now started a petition drive urging President-elect Barack Obama to appoint a secretary of agriculture with a vision for a more sustainable food system.

Now that Obama has decided on Tom Vilsack for this position, Food Democracy Now has launched a new petition:

We want to Thank You for signing the original letter at Food Democracy Now! In just three weeks, more than 60,000 Americans have joined Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Eric Schlosser calling for a sustainable USDA.

Now that the Secretary of Agriculture has been selected, it's more important than ever that we send our message to Washington. Today's farmers need a serious voice for sustainable change at the USDA.

Therefore, Food Democracy Now! has created a list of 12 candidates for the crucial Under Secretary positions that will stand up for family farms, safe food, clear air and water, animal welfare and soil preservation.

We need your help to continue to spread the word to your friends and colleagues to reach our goal of 100,000 signatures in the next two weeks before the Inauguration!

These 12 candidates have spent their lives fighting for family farmers and we're calling them the Sustainable Dozen. Help us send them to Washington.

If you've already signed the petition, please forward this to one other person who cares about these issues to help us reach our goal of 100,000 Americans for a sustainable food system for the 21st century.

Once the Secretary of Agriculture is confirmed, we will deliver this letter with your comments to him and President Obama in Washington DC.

We at Food Democracy Now! are continuing to give voice to these concerns with policy makers at the federal, state and local levels, to gain a seat at the table and keep these issues at the forefront of future policy decisions.

Currently we are MORE THAN 60,000 voices strong. Please help keep this conversation going...Donate today. By donating as little as $5 or $10 you can make a difference in shaping the conversation at the USDA. Through our collective efforts, this letter has successfully reached "the right people" in Washington and we need to continue this vital work to create a future that we can ALL BELIEVE IN.

From all of us at Food Democracy Now! - Have a Happy, Sustainable New Year!

Best,
David Murphy
Food Democracy Now!
http://www.fooddemocracynow.org

The links did not come through when I copied and pasted that message, so please click over to the site to read more.

Here is Food Democracy Now's "sustainable dozen." You may recognize several Iowans' names on the list:

  1. Gus Schumacher: Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture. Boston, Massachusetts
  2. Chuck Hassebrook: Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Nebraska.
  3. Sarah Vogel: attorney; former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.
  4. Fred Kirschenmann: organic farmer; Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA; President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, New York.
  5. Mark Ritchie: current Minnesota Secretary of State; former policy analyst in Minnesota's Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich; co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  6. Neil Hamilton: attorney; Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.
  7. Doug O'Brien: current Assistant Director at Ohio Department of Agriculture; worked for the U.S. House and the Senate Ag Committee; former staff attorney and co-director for the National Agriculture Law Center in Arkansas, Reynoldsburg, Ohio.
  8. James Riddle: organic farmer; founding chair of the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA); has served on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force since 1991; appointed to the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, serving on the Executive Committee for 5 years and was chair in 2005, Board of Directors. Winona, Minnesota.
  9. Kathleen Merrigan: Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment M.S./Ph.D. Program, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center on Agriculture; Food and the Environment, Tufts University; former Federal Agency Administrator U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service; creator of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, mandating national organic standards and a program of federal accreditation. Boston Massachusetts.
 10. Denise O'Brien: organic farmer, founder of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN); represented the interests of women in agriculture at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995; organized a rural women's workshop for the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Italy; received nearly a half million votes in her 2006 bid to become Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture. Atlantic, Iowa.
 11. Ralph Paige: Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; served as presidential appointment to the 21st Century Production Agriculture Commission; participates on the Agriculture Policy Advisory Committee for Trade; the Cooperative Development Foundation; and the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education & Economics Advisory Board. East Point, Georgia.
 12. Karen Ross: President of the California Winegrape Growers Association and Executive Director of the Winegrape Growers of America; awarded the Wine Integrity Award by the Lodi Winegrape Commission for her contributions to the wine industry. Sacramento, California.

If you click over to Food Democracy Now, you'll find a link for each of these people with more information about his or her background and expertise.

Thanks to all who sign the petition and help spread the word.

P.S.: There have been rumors this week that Obama may nominate Vilsack for secretary of commerce instead of secretary of agriculture, but aides close to Vilsack told KCCI news in Des Moines that the rumors are not true. He is apparently in Washington now interviewing potential future US Department of Agriculture staffers.  

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Bleeding Heartland Year in Review: Iowa politics in 2008

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 31, 2008 at 22:00:00 PM CST

Last year at this time I was scrambling to make as many phone calls and knock on as many doors as I could before the Iowa caucuses on January 3.

This week I had a little more time to reflect on the year that just ended.

After the jump I've linked to Bleeding Heartland highlights in 2008. Most of the links relate to Iowa politics, but some also covered issues or strategy of national importance.

I only linked to a few posts about the presidential race. I'll do a review of Bleeding Heartland's 2008 presidential election coverage later this month.

You can use the search engine on the left side of the screen to look for past Bleeding Heartland diaries about any person or issue.

There's More... :: (2 Comments, 5859 words in story)

More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Dec 20, 2008 at 20:54:32 PM CST

I don't recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton's or George Bush's nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack's friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the "best possible" choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O'Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans - yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, "to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals."  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. "Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon."

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: "Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates."

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: "Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults."

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. "Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health."

Tagtow's suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa's fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:

Friends,

[...] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a "Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture" originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro...

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it's helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs' proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn't given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a "Stop Vilsack" petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack's position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack's confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack's nomination:

I'm glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I'm glad. This way they don't get their due by 'vetoing' a Surgeon General's warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, "Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?"

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week's little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we'd have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson's now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what's so terribly wrong with our system. There's one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler's firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He's repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over "organic"). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark's non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he's also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don't get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack's nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

Discuss :: (1 Comments)

A Republican for Transportation Secretary and more reaction to Obama's cabinet picks

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Dec 18, 2008 at 08:39:17 AM CST

President-elect Barack Obama has apparently decided to appoint retiring Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois as Secretary of Transportation. LaHood was elected to the U.S. House in the 1994 landslide. He decided not to run for re-election this year because "It's not any fun being in the minority." (Are you listening, Tom Latham?)

An Illinois blogger writes that LaHood doesn't have much of a record on transportation issues, although he has voted for more public transit funding and more passenger rail service on Amtrak.

At Grist, Ryan Avent sees three possibilities:

  1. Obama doesn't intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies,
  2. Obama doesn't really care about transportation, and
  3. It isn't true.

But I agree with the reader who suggested a fourth possibility:

4) Obama knows this guy personally, finds him to be a trustworthy sort.  

I am going to hope for number 4 and that Obama will have LaHood implement the transportation priorities Obama and Biden believe in. Expanding passenger rail is one of the biggies.

Incidentally, LaHood was one of the leaders of the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Let's hope he won't try to undermine Obama's presidency as well.

Regarding Obama's choice of Senator Ken Salazar for Secretary of Interior, some environmental groups are concerned. He's far from the environmental champion they were hoping for in Congressman Raul Grijalva. Kate Sheppard has more on the environmental community's mixed feelings on Salazar at Grist.

However, the Sierra Club praised Salazar, as well as Tom Vilsack, in this press release.

In this Daily Kos diary, Kula 2316 provides more reaction to Obama's choice of Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

Discuss :: (2 Comments)

More reaction to Vilsack as head of the USDA (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 17, 2008 at 10:25:31 AM CST

Barack Obama will officially announce today that he is nominating Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Vilsack said last month that he was not being vetted for any position in Obama's cabinet. According to the Des Moines Register, Vilsack

was notified Thursday that Obama wanted to meet with him at the presidential transition headquarters in Chicago, sources close to the transition said.

Obama and Vilsack met Friday, after which the Iowan was offered the position.

I have to say, they did a pretty good job keeping that under wraps for three days.

Senator Tom Harkin will make sure Vilsack's confirmation hearings go smoothly.

Iowans from both parties expect Vilsack's appointment to benefit Iowa:

Iowa Department of Economic Development Director Mike Tramontina said Vilsack, as agriculture secretary, would benefit Iowa in multiple ways.

Tramontina, a Democrat and Vilsack supporter, said the department is the primary source of federal money for the state. Its effect on commodities and trade, renewable energy, water quality and, more immediately, flood control, would be magnified with Vilsack at the helm, he predicted.

"We'll have someone there who understands Iowa's animal agriculture, a person who understands Iowa's topography, its rivers and streams and its small towns," Tramontina said.

"To have someone like Tom Vilsack, who understands Iowa the way he does, is going to be a tremendous benefit to us."

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, a Republican, had kind words for Vilsack.

"It's nice to have an Iowan in this job," Northey said. "He understands what's going on in agriculture. He's a quick study, and I think Iowans will have good access in the USDA."

Chuck Grassley must be happy to have Vilsack out of the running for the 2010 Senate election:

One top Iowa Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, sounded relieved in a statement he released Tuesday night. "This comes as a surprise since about three weeks ago Governor Vilsack stated that he was not in contention for the job, but it sure isn't a surprise because of his qualifications," Grassley said.

"As governor of Iowa, he had a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy. I'm happy for him, happy for Iowa, and this is welcome news for agriculture."

David Yepsen views this appointment as "a nice political thank you to Iowa," adding

It's less clear what Vilsack, a trial lawyer by training, brings to the job. He has never been a dirt-under-the-fingernails farmer. A policy wonk, he won't be much for those backslapping visits to farm shows and state fairs, which is often the fate of an ag secretary.

What's wrong with having a policy wonk run this department? The job should go to someone who can do more than fit in at farm shows and state fairs. Remember, the USDA

also covers food production and safety, as well as the Food Stamp Program. Vilsack is expected to work with Harkin next year as the reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, which includes subsidized meals for low-income students, comes up for reauthorization.

"We have to focus on nutrition, and I look forward to working with Sen. Harkin on this," Vilsack said.

I didn't realize the school lunch program was up for reauthorization next year.

Anyway, my point is that there's no reason Obama shouldn't appoint a policy wonk for this job. If Vilsack had done more to support sustainable agriculture while he was governor, I would feel great about this appointment. As it is, I think he will be a good manager but will just continue the status quo in our agriculture policies, which from my perspective are not ideal for our economy, environment or health.

On that note, John Nichols of The Nation is not thrilled with Obama's choice:

Vilsack is a capable administrator with the right partisan credentials.

But he only moved to the top of the list of Agriculture secretary prospects because he is a prominent Democrat who comes from what Washington insiders know as a "farm state." As governor of Iowa, Vilsack had to engage with farm issues. But that embrace was anything but inspired. Family farm activists, fair-trade campaigners and advocates for organic foods were regularly disappointed by the stands he took. The Organic Consumers Association was blunt, declaring: "Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a schill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto." [...]

Obama could have done better, much better. [...]

More competitive -- and still quite appealing -- was Tom Buis, the president of the National Farmers Union, who was an early and wise counselor for the president-elect. Buis, an Indiana farmer who has also served as an aide to top Democrats in the Senate, has over the past several years been in the thick of every major debate about farm and food policy. He knows the issues and, for the most part, he has been on the right side of them, although critics of ethanol initiatives will find fault with his advocacy on that front.

Unlike the Farm Bureau, a conservative grouping that has historically aligned with corporate agribusiness interests and Wall Street, the Farmers Union has for a century represented working farmers and Main Street. In recent years, Buis and the NFU have emerged as key players in advancing fresh thinking about farm and food issues: supporting the development of organic farming, backing the development of farmers' markets and local food programs, promoting country-of-origin labeling and other food safety initiatives, and battling the commodities speculators that have driven up global food prices.

Nichols expressed hope that Vilsack will tap either Buis or "sharp state official[s]" for senior posts within the USDA. Strong contenders include Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen, North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Roger Johnson, former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Sarah Vogel, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Natasha Chart's assessment is worth reading.

At La Vida Locavore, Jill Richardson explains in detail why she opposes putting genetically-modified organisms in food. Vilsack has been a prominent advocate of GMOs and "pharmacrops."

UPDATE: Congressman Dave Loebsack released this statement:

"Governor Tom Vilsack is an outstanding choice as the next Secretary of Agriculture, I can think of no better person to serve our nation in this capacity.  Governor Vilsack is a proven leader and he possesses a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing rural America.  As Secretary of Agriculture, Governor Vilsack will be able to draw on his experience and knowledge to protect family farms, support rural communities, and end our nation's dependence on foreign oil by bolstering the production of bio-fuels and other renewable sources of energy.  Iowans are proud of Governor Vilsack, and excited by the opportunity to have one of our own serve as a cabinet secretary in the new Obama Administration."

Congressman Bruce Braley released this statement:

"My friend Tom Vilsack is a great choice for Secretary of Agriculture, and I'm glad to see that an Iowan will play a major role in President Obama's administration.  Governor Vilsack knows agriculture and is a strong supporter of renewable energy and biofuels.  I can't think of a more qualified and capable candidate for the job," said Rep. Bruce Braley.

If Congressman Leonard Boswell's office sends me a statement, I would be happy to post that as well.

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