For sustainable agriculture, anyway.
1. He’ll pick a terrible USDA secretary.
A distinct possibility. As I mentioned previously, all of the lower level political appointees are incredibly important- but so is the USDA secretary. She/he sets the tone for the entire department, and any lower level appointee that bucks the Secretary’s philosophy will almost certainly be quickly reined in. Of course, a few names have been floated already (though some Obama people have anonymously said any such whispers are pure speculation). Keep in mind, the gold standard for ag secretary is someone who will understand our current system is killing rural communities and ultimately unsustainable from an environmental and public health perspective. That person doesn’t have to upend conventional agriculture during their term (which would be impossible, anyway), but they would make decisions from the best possible perspective.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN): Terrible. Ran the House during the last farm bill, and only gave sustainable ag anything at all because Harkin forced him to, and even that was a pitiful amount. Hates any sort of structural reform (packer ban, payment limits). Thinks farm programs exist to ensure a cheap food supply. Loves ethanol. About as conventional ag as you can get. Spent mucho time during the farm bill trying to keep the cotton and rice people “on board” with what they were doing.
Charlie Stenholm: Former Rep. from Texas. Chair of the House Ag Committee during the 2002 farm bill. While in House, an ardent advocate for big-ass cotton farms in Texas, now a big-time lobbyist for conventional ag in DC. The same farm philosophy as Collin Peterson (or, I should say, Peterson has the same philosophy as him). Terrible, terrible. Please God do not let this man become ag secretary.
Tom Vilsack: Evidently the front-runner and probably Obama’s safest choice. Former Governor of Iowa. Briefly ran for President (with a kick ass V for Vendetta campaign logo- check it out), then supported Hillary, then supported Obama. While Governor of Iowa, apparently was remarkably inoffensive and did some particularly good things with health care. Did very little to stop the spread of CAFOs in Iowa and never really took on big, conventional ag interest (not that you would expect him to, except on CAFOs, which most Iowans hate). Seems like a nice guy who’s fairly intelligent. The real question is whether his niceness and moderation will keep him from standing up to conventional big ag interests (and their congressional allies). Brian Depew and John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs are native Iowans, so they probably know much more about Vilsack than I do. If he does get the nod, I expect extensive blogging from Depew on what to expect.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD): Intriguing, but I don’t have much of an idea what kind of Secretary she would make. Initially supported John Edwards, and gave several speeches supporting Edwards’ competition platform- packer ban, price discrimination- really good structural stuff. I heard her give the speech in Iowa, and she sounded like she meant it. A little bit of a South Dakota populist throw-back. At the end of the day, though, didn’t do anything on payment limits during the House farm bill process. Did work for decent beginning farmer legislation, which is a major plus.
Tom Buis: Current president of National Farmers Union. Used to work for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Some people think this would be a good pick, but I doubt it (and I think it unlikely, since secretary of ag almost always goes to a current or former Representative, Senator, or Governor). National Farmers Union (unlike many of the state organizations, which I love) has essentially become the slightly less conservative twin of the Farm Bureau. During the last farm bill, they had two big priorities. First, a permanent disaster program, which sends money to places that shouldn’t be growing crops anyway (see great EWG report).
The second priority was country of origin labeling on packaged meat; a good idea, but I dare you to prove to me that it will revitalize small farm meat production in this country. It won’t do a damn thing. And by the way, COOL was IN THE 2002 FARM BILL, just never implemented due to industry resistance. I personally heard Buis brag about striking the compromise that got COOL in this farm bill; I never quite understood why a deal was needed on something that was in the previous farm bill (particularly since the Republicans on the Ag Committee who had blocked COOL were now in the minority; evidently the Democrats weren’t too hot on COOL either, despite their campaign proclamations). And Buis is now spending his time getting the meatpackers on board with COOL, which I don’t quite understand since it is the law already. Want to guess how much time Buis spends talking about a packer ban while tucking into a chicken sandwich with the CEO of Tyson? And all this for a tiny little sticker on the back of a package of meat. Pitiful.
Buis clearly is a conventional ag kind of guy. He doesn’t particularly care for payment limits (in spite of what his membership thinks), and NFU never laid their prestige on the line for a real competition title (despite what they may say, they never went to the mat for it like they did COOL). Buis is slightly better than Peterson or Stenholm, but if you’re looking for a real sustainable ag perspective you’ll be disappointed.
Anyway, if anybody has more thoughts on a new Secretary of Ag, put them in the comments and I’ll put up another post.