Vilsack unanimously confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture

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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Latest speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Prominent advocates of sustainable agriculture, local foods, and more environmentally-friendly farming have sent an open letter to Barack Obama urging him to appoint a “sustainable choice for the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.” Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and poet Wendell Berry were among the 88 people who signed the letter. They suggested six good choices to head the USDA, including two Iowans:

1. Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.

2. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.

3. Sarah Vogel, former Commissioner of Agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.

4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.

5. Mark Ritchie, 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.

6. Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

Incidentally, Hamilton published an op-ed column in the Des Moines Register on Monday urging Obama to establish a “New Farmer Corps.”

Anyway, the people who signed the open letter are likely to be disappointed by Obama’s decision, because the reported short list for the post doesn’t include any advocate of sustainable agriculture. OrangeClouds115/Jill Richardson argues here that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius would be the least-bad option among the people Obama is considering to run the USDA. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff would be a particularly bad choice.

On a related note, Ed Fallon wrote Obama a letter applying for the job of “White House Farmer.” Michael Pollan advocated the creation of this position in an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 12. Obama read Pollan’s piece (he even paraphrased points from it in an interview with Time magazine), but it is not known whether the president-elect supports setting aside a few acres of the White House lawn to be cultivated organically by a White House Farmer.

Fallon campaigned for John Edwards before the Iowa caucuses but endorsed Obama immediately after Edwards dropped out of the presidential race. His letter to Obama is after the jump.

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More speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Iowa politicians from both parties, as well as representatives of influential ag lobbies, like the idea of former Governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to this piece from the Des Moines Register:

The ag secretary, whose department oversees such organizations as United States Forest Service, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service and the food stamp program, must have a strong relationship with the industry, be a strong manager, and be politically in tune with the president.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack has those qualities, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (a Republican) likes the idea of Barack Obama picking someone from Iowa who understands the biofuels industry. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley tells the Register that it always benefits Iowa to have someone from our state is a position of power.

The heads of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association also have good things to say about Vilsack’s knowledge and background in the article.

Although this was ostensibly a news piece and not an opinion column, the Register made its preference clear by not quoting any critic of Vilsack’s record on agriculture and not mentioning any reason why anyone might oppose him for this job.

Vilsack’s strong ties to the biotech and biofuels industries prompted the Organic Consumers Association to come out against his appointment as head of the USDA. When I wrote about that on Thursday, a few people questioned whether anyone else on Obama’s short list for this job would be better than Vilsack in terms of supporting organic foods and sustainable agriculture.

It’s a fair question. Here Jill Richardson/OrangeClouds115 makes the case against House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. She shows that Obama’s campaign platform includes a lot of good points on agriculture, most of which Peterson has used his position in Congress to block.

Yesterday, shirah argued here that Pennsylvania Secretary of Agricultre Dennis Wolff, another name on Obama’s short list, would be “about the worst person” for this job. The diarist has written extensively about “Wolff’s role in trying to take away the right of Pennsylvanians to know whether their milk was produced using rBST / rBGH (recombinant bovine somatrophin / recombinant bovine growth hormone).”

Looks like Obama’s agriculture policy is going to be “more of the same” rather than “change we can believe in.”

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