Vilsack, Part Two

John Crabtree weighs in with the following comment:

Criticizing Tom Vilsack for not doing enough to stop the explosion of industrial hog confinements while Governor is fair, although reasonable people can and should debate that point. I’ll say this, his Department of Natural Resources actually turned into a regulatory agency under Vilsack, and permits were actually refused. Moreover, Vonk, his DNR director was not universally embraced when Vilsack named him but by the time current Iowa Governor Chet Culver ousted him CAFO opponents were up in arms (probably because they knew that Culver and Lt Gov Patty Judge would install a conventional ag patsy).

I guess my point is, on CAFO issues, Vilsack was far better than both the Repub that proceeded him (Branstad) and the Democrat that followed him (Culver)… I admit, however, those are not difficult beauty contests to win.

Vilsack was crucial in winning the passage of livestock market reform legislation in Iowa that I worked on in 1999. In fact, I still have one of the pens that he used to sign the bill.

Compared to the other folks on the short list, Vilsack is head and shoulders better than the field and past Secretaries of Ag. Vilsack has a mind, a voice and a pulse… might not always agree, but he’ll have something to say.

Glickman – lights on, no one home… talking, but no pulse
Veneman – total corporate sell out
Buis, Stenholm – how would these two be any different than Glickman, if not worse?


Why Obama Might Be Terrible

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.

Part III

Third reason sustainable ag should be excited about Obama:  Health care, and everything else that doesn’t have to do with USDA.

Health care is the single most important issue facing farmers in this country (just ask, they’ll tell you) and without health insurance reform family farmers simply will not survive.  Moreover, without decent health coverage, we will never- never- have the number of farmers we need to grow our food sustainably.  I don’t think Obama’s health insurance plan will solve all of our problems, but it’s about a bajillion times better than McCain’s.

And let’s not forget that many other government agencies (besides USDA) hold sway over some aspect of agriculture.  And an Obama administration would, without a doubt, appoint people to those agencies that would be more friendly to sustainable ag, even if they didn’t realize it.  For example, Elanor over at Ethicurean highlights EPA perfidy occuring right now:

CAFOs should be regulated in this way, there’s no question. The operations release billions of pounds of toxic gases into the air each year, including methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia, all of which cause highly unpleasant side effects in humans…

But as I reported in March, the EPA wanted to exempt animal manure from the reporting requirements, so CAFOs would no longer need to report air pollution from their manure lagoons or other sites. And this week, the government’s Office of Management and Budget announced that the final rule exempting manure had been handed down from EPA.

Ugh.  So while some may say that Obama might appoint the same old agribusiness cheerleaders, the fact remains that even if that is the case, he’s a lot more likely to appoint some true progressives in other positions that substantially impact agriculture.  So while Obie-one might appoint somebody nauseating as Secretay of Ag, it’s hard to imagine he would appoint somebody truly awful to head the EPA.  And he’s more likely to fight for health insurance legislation.  Did I mention that was important?

Obama will be good, part II

Second reason Obama will kick ass:  He says he will.  So there.  And he’s smart.

I’m not one to buy into the Republican logic of “Obama’s policies are so centrist, he must be a socialist”.  Basically, when predicting what an Obama USDA would do, we don’t have much to go on other than what he has said he will do.  And that, according to Tom Philpott, ain’t all that bad:

Overall, his Real Leadership for Rural America [PDF] is scant on details, but contains plenty to cheer food-system reformers…

Even more impressively, Obama talks big about challenging the dominance of agribusiness over the nation’s food supply. In a section that reads like music to my ears, the document declares that: “in an era of market consolidation, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will fight to ensure family and independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices.”

I’m a big Philpott fan, and I happen to think in this instance he’s right.  So if we’re to go by Obama’s stated positions, sustainable ag- and rural communities- could be in for some good times.  A great many people contributed to Obama’s rural policy work, and I happen to know a couple of them.   I can certainly testify to their good intentions, and that’s important.

Moreover, Obama ain’t dumb.   Recently, he approvingly quoted the latest Michael Pollan article that put the blame for global warming, obesity and fossil fuel dependence directly on our current dominant agribusiness model (this, of course has the farmer queens all in a tizzy).  He’s clearly intellectually curious, and there’s not much that rouses the intellectual curiosity like the blatant contradictions and stupidity within federal farm policy.  So if he pays attention to the USDA, there’s real hope that big changes- and progress- will occur.

Should we look forward to Obama?

In the comments section a short time ago, I was asked by the pork lover John Crabtree the following:

So, riddle me this Batman, why am I supposed to be excited about the prospect of a new administration overseeing the most crucial structural issues facing rural America? Is there really any hope that an Obama or McCain USDA will be any better than the last one (or the last two, three… eleven Departments of Agriculture?)

That is an excellent question, one which I will try to expound upon in a series of blog posts.

First reason why you should look forward to Obama:

1.  He ain’t Bush. As far as USDA goes, that’s all you need to know.  Basically, this is the number one reason for the sustainable ag community to pray for an Obama victory.  In my mind, any President has two really big powers- foreign policy and most importantly for our consideration, the power of appointment.  Behind the once-every-five-years farm bill and the media coverage are the day-to-day decisions that determine the course of USDA programs.  Those programs are critical if we want to ever have a sustainable ag system for the country as a whole, and they are programs that both promote sustainable ag and work against it.  Either way, they’re important.  So if Obama appoints better people to make the decisions that guide those programs- and those people hire good people to actually implement those decisions- it is a big, big deal.  I’m not kidding.  Don’t believe me?  Go check out some of the all-stars currently running USDA at the under secretary level, those appointed by Bush.  Here’s two:

Charles Lambert is the current Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.  That’s a mouthful, for sure.  He also spent 15 years as an employee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assocation, an organization determined to screw small cattle ranchers if there ever was one.  Oh, and he serves as an official USDA biotech cheerleader in various international working groups.  Why should you care?  One of the many issues under his purview is $900 million in annual commodity purchases for school lunch programs.  GMO school lunches will stick around at least as long as he does.

Speaking of nutrition, Eric Hentges serves as Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which is best known for our slight creepy food pyramid.  Within USDA nutrition programs, that means he tells other agencies what’s healthy and what isn’t.   He’s had some interesting big ag roles too:

Vice President of Applied Technology and Education Services for the National Pork Board, Director of Consumer Nutrition and Health Research with the National Pork Producers Council, and Director of Human Nutrition Research with the National Live Stock and Meat Board.

Hmmm….  If that doesn’t worry you, he’s also a member of the Institute of Food Technologists.  Yay for chicken nuggets!

There’s lots more where that came from.  These people matter.  Obama may not appoint sustainable ag angels, but on the whole it would no doubt be a serious improvement.

Should you vote for John McCain?

Uh, no.  However, in a lesson to all of us, John McCain is actually 100% right on the issue of eliminating the USDA’s Market Access Program (MAP).  McCain hates it and thinks it should go away.  When I see who gets the money and what it’s for, I immediately agree with John McCain.  For example:

Among groups receiving MAP funds in 2008 were the Florida Department of Citrus ($5.9 million); the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin ($351,000); the Cranberry Marketing Committee ($1.6 million), which has members in Michigan, Minnesota and Washington as well as New England.

The cotton and meat industries — centered in southern and western states crucial to the GOP — were the two largest recipients of MAP funds. In California, money went to organizations representing growers of strawberries, walnuts, cling peaches, pears, kiwifruit and pistachios.

Elimination of the program would hit the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, in the home state of McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The Institute got $5 million from MAP to promote exports in 2008.

I have to say I really doubt Sarah Palin would be able to give an informed opinion on this program.  And even if she could, you just know she’d be all for the program once the election is over; she’s from Alaska, where the only thing they like better than proclaiming their macho independence is living off the lower 48’s tax dollars.

Anyway, you just know this sort of program is utter and complete shit; moreover, you just know that even if it did the teensiest bit of good the amount of money spent could do a whole hell of a lot more good somewhere else (rural development, anyone?).   And of course, the socialist terrorist pal Barry Hussein Obama supports this crap:

And last year he [Obama] joined 10 other senators calling for expansion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program (MAP), which provides matching funds to non-profit U.S. agricultural trade associations, cooperatives and small business groups “to overcome trade barriers and build export markets overseas.”

Why Barry why?!!!?  Damn, at least I can distinguish between social welfare and corporate welfare.  But in a typical Democratic political calculation, Barry’s people (and you know it’s that Tom Daschle, dammit) have decided they must placate the big ag groups on every single issue to get votes in rural areas.  Even though those groups have given TWICE as much money to McCain, who wants to kill their pet program.  And you know if you were to explain this program to the average rural voter (including farmers) you’ll get a single, universal response: “That program sounds like horseshit”.  It’s enough to make the head spin.

A while back John Crabtree asked me why sustainable ag/progressive rural types should look forward to an Obama administration.  I’ve been meaning to write something on that.  With news like this, you have to think there’s not all that much to look forward to, at least on the agriculture front.

Hat tip to the Faceless Bureacrat

My question to you.

Well, our big bailout didn’t pass (I have mixed feelings, but I damn well better be getting my student loans next semester), and a curious coalition of House Republicans and Democrats got together to kill the bill.  You might call it a “left-right” coalition.  It primarily consisted of conservative House Republicans to whom government intervention in the economy is a horrifying prospect, but also included a significant number of liberal House Democrats who thought it didn’t do enough for the ordinary average guy.

Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.  And to a large extent, it’s probably true, for now.  But if Pelosi et al. want to pass a bailout package, I know how to do it: The other white meat.

That’s right, pork.  There is no ideological obstacle in Congress that cannot be overcome with the proper application of money, particularly when it goes to a certain district.  Hell, the House Democrats who opposed wanted more money for homeowners facing foreclosure- something I support- but they straight up said they want the money for “people in my district”.  That, my friends, is pork, but at least it tastes good.

Republicans, on the other hand, want more military bases and defense manufacturing or some such shit, and then they’ll go along.  At least those Republicans in competitive races this fall.  The Republicans from non-competitive districts are usually conservative nutjobs who are truly insane, but will never lose a race (see: Steve King).  You won’t get them, but you can get the ones in tight races, and that’s enough to pass.

You know, you kind of have to appreciate the irony of Congressional leaders and Bushies appealing for votes on the basis of “what’s good for the country” and then losing because they didn’t play good enough politics to win.  I mean, these people politicize everything.  I suppose this is what happens when Karl Rove leaves the White House; nobody seems to know how to keep a whip count anymore.

How, beyond keen observation, do I know that money, properly directed, is the key to everything?  Because I worked on the farm bill, which is going to spend 350 billion or so over five years. (Almost exactly half of the bailout!)  And on the House Democratic side of things, there wasn’t a Democratic vote that I recall that couldn’t be bought.  The money might even go for good stuff.  But the important thing was that enough money would always- always- get the Democrat in question to acquiesce to the absurd, wasteful, socially and environmentally destructive farm program payments the government hands out every year. The bailout currently before Congress may be corporate welfare, but don’t think that will prevent Democrats from voting for it.  As long as they get their piece of the pie.

Republicans, to my lasting Democratic shame, were much more interested in ending idiotic farm program spending (or getting rid of it entirely).  Perhaps not coincidentally, a leading opponent of the current bailout was also a leading proponent of farm program payment limits in the House- Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

And yes, there was a “left-right” coalition on the farm bill as well, though this consisted of interest groups, not actual politicians.  Organizations like the Heritage Foundation (conservative crazies) and Environmental Defense (not crazy, but have been in DC too long) got together to fight for the Ron Kind bill (remember that?) and a general redo of farm programs (I won’t bore you with the details).  Thankfully, the Center for Rural Affairs was not part of such foolishness.  Obviously they failed in their goals, though I’m not so sure that bothers some of them.  But the real question is why did they fail after two years of effort, whereas an impromptu coalition of politicians succeeded in derailing a bailout package two weeks old that supposedly could avert the wholesale collapses of our economy?

I’m not the expert, but I’ll hazard a guess.  It just might have something to do with the hundreds of thousands of emails, phone calls and letters that Congress received, nearly all in opposition to this bill   And they were the real deal, no half-assed organization action alert shit here.  Oh no.  People are pissed off, and they are writing their own letters- unprompted by anybody- which is incredibly rare.   And somehow, that seems to have gotten through to a couple DC politicians.  So maybe, just maybe, some of those left-right organizations in the farm bill world ought to get their asses out in the countryside and do some real organizing.  Until then, all we’ll have is a couple of politicians in DC who care about sustainable ag/family farm issues- and all we’ll get is the crumbs for which they’ll sell their vote.