Wait an Ag Sec: Getting real about who will head the USDA

By Steph Larsen

Editor’s note: With readers clamoring in the comments section and a petition started for President-Elect Barack Obama to appoint Michael Pollan as Secretary of Agriculture (read Pollan’s response below), I asked a Beltway-savvy acquaintance to summarize just how fertile the landscape for change might be. Steph Larsen is a longtime policy activist who has been pragmatically and pithily debating the realpolitik chances of likely candidates on the Comfood email list-serv. Currently the Rural Policy Organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs in northeast Nebraska, she spent three years in Washington, D.C. working with Community Food Security Coalition. She holds an MS in geography from her home state of Wisconsin.

The excitement of the recent election has worn off. In its place, a new horse race has emerged. The media is now obsessed with who President-Elect Obama will pick to help lead his government of change. We in the sustainable food, rural and agriculture community are particularly susceptible to this when it comes to suggesting nominees for Secretary of Agriculture.

In our enthusiasm, however, there is a tendency of some to lose their heads and forget that, new era or not, this is still politics and the rules still apply. Realism is still a prerequisite.

As soon as Obama won, I witnessed a flurry of emails and blog posts suggesting Michael Pollan, Fred Kirschenmann, Denise O’Brien, Willie Nelson (albeit that was a joke), and a host of other stalwarts of sustainable agriculture.

I would cheer if (most) any of these people were actually being considered, but this is not the reality of the situation. There are times to dream, and dream big, but the bigger you dream, the more you need to strategize and organize, and the further into the future you must plan.

Understanding the process

The process of becoming Secretary of Agriculture begins long before a presidential election. Candidates typically have myriad political connections and make themselves useful in the campaign of the eventual winner. By election time, the list of possibilities is already well-established.

This isn’t to say that our collective voices cannot make a difference. They can, and in multiple ways. But at this point it is a matter of focusing our energy and limited resources where they can best be put to use. Instead of fill-in-the-blank politics, where we suggest the names of potential Secretary of Agriculture candidates, we are now in the multiple-choice stage, where we have the opportunity to voice our support — or dislike — for the candidates already put forward. We can also focus energy on getting good people into lower-level positions within USDA, as I’ll report in my next post.

And the finalists are…

Given that, here are the choices as I see them, based on various media accounts. It is not my intent to support or criticize any of the potential candidates, but rather to inform and perhaps encourage you to look their records. Use the comments section to add relevant information about their previous actions and positions.

Governor Tom Vilsack: Vilsack was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. He also served in the Iowa State Senate from 1992-1999. Vilsack backed Hillary Clinton in the primary but afterward campaigned for Obama. He has penned several recent op-eds on agricultural issues. Vilsack appears to be the leading candidate right now, but in politics one never knows until the race is called.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN): Peterson is the current chair of the Agriculture Committee, a position that holds significant power in the House of Representatives. Look to the 2008 Farm Bill to discern his priorities and bipartisan compromises, as he ushered the bill through the House legislative process. A spokesperson said he’s not interested in the job.

Tom Buis, President of the National Farmers Union: Buis has been with National Farmers Union since 1998. Prior to joining NFU, Buis served more than 10 years in the offices of legislators such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former U.S. Rep. Jim Jontz, and former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh. Before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1987, Buis was a farmer in west central Indiana.

Former Rep. Charles Stenholm: Stenholm was a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 2005, representing his home state of Texas. He operated a cotton farm near Abilene for many years and also worked as a vocational teacher. After leaving Congress, Stenholm became a lobbyist and represented various agricultural interests.

John Boyd: A relatively new name to emerge, Boyd is president of the National Black Farmers Association, a fourth-generation farmer and civil rights leader. Congressional Black Caucus members have reportedly thrown their support behind Boyd.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD): Sandlin is a lawyer and currently the sole member of the House of Representatives from South Dakota. Prior to her election to the House, Herseth Sandlin was Executive Director of the South Dakota Farmer’s Union Foundation. She is considered a “dark horse” for the Secretary position, and may run for governor of South Dakota in 2010.

Among the ranks of less likely candidates are Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, Former Iowa Representative and Republican Jim Leach (a bipartisan nod), Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, South Dakota Director for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager, and Indiana’s most recent failed gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson. Some of these remain strong contenders for other positions.

Making a stronger impact

Another way to influence this process is by weighing in with your senators regarding other appointed positions at USDA, such as Under Secretaries, Deputy Under Secretaries, and Agency Administrators. These positions often control the daily workings of programs we care about, and having people friendly to the sustainable food, rural and agriculture community in these positions goes a long way to help make these programs successful.

In my next post, I will describe some of these positions so you can have a better idea of who might fit well into them. We can dream a little bigger with positions lower down the chain of command, and our suggestions have a much higher chance of being taken seriously.

One last note: Before one becomes Secretary of Agriculture, he or she must actually desire to take on the job managing a sprawling, $94 billion a year bureaucracy. I was curious about whether Michael Pollan was actually up for the job, so Bonnie asked him whether, as we suspected, he was not at all interested. He replied, “Confirmed. But maybe the floating of my name will push the center a bit.”

23 Responsesto “Wait an Ag Sec: Getting real about who will head the USDA”

  1. vegangrrrl says:

    it seems to me that a good choice, and not completely unrealistic, would be Jim Hightower. Why not?

  2. andy sarjahani says:

    Amen Steph – even though you busted my Fred Kirschenmann bubble. : )
    That’s why I rely on the good Beltway folk like yourself for this information!

    PS – Fred Kirschenmann is still my hero and always will be. : )

  3. Several of these choices are seriously vomit-worthy. I realize they aren’t your picks, Steph, but….arrgghhh. Facing the political reality of ag policy even in an Obama administration is not pleasant. You’d think since Obama reads Pollan that he’d have the sense to appoint someone a bit less destructive than Peterson or Vilsack to such a crucial position.

  4. To Vegangrrrl: OMG, I am with you on Hightower. I would LOVE that. I wrote up a post on this same topic on my blog, with my comments on each of the potential picks here: http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=609
    And I wrote another post here on the subject, not about who gets appointed, but about what they should believe: http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=613

  5. Mark Schonbeck says:

    Thank you, Steph for this information.  It puts in perspective an upsetting headline that I read in an OCA e-newsletter, to the effect that Obama is considering former Iowa Governor Vilsack, who has been a strong supporter of biotech and even opposed reasonable safeguards related to ‘Pharma’-crops that can cross with food or fodder crops.  It is good to say he has other alternatives before him.  After exploring the links here, I remain uncomfortable with Vilsack, also Stenholm and Peterson, neither of whom turned out to be really strong sustainable ag allies in the past 2 farm bills.  I really hope he goes for Tom Buis or John Boyd, either of whom would likely be much more progressive.  Having Boyd as assistant  Ag Secretary for civil rights would also be good. If Vilsack’s record on biotech non-regulation is as OCA alleges, I sincerely hope that sustainable ag advoctes near the Presidential Transition Team can steer Obama away from him.

  6. farmboy says:

    One has to be realistic about how aggressively our next President could move towards change at USDA.  We really having no substantial indication that President-elect Obama wants change; a casual reference to Michael Pollan doesn’t count for much.  I believe that intelectually the President-elect can grasp eco-agriculture if he has the time to study it, but he is far from the only person who will be making this decision.  The Department exists to serve Agribusiness and those interests cannot be expected to accept a Secretary with whom they are unfamiliar, much less one who has been antagonistic towards their position.  Basically, the real powers that be aren’t going to give the keys to the family car to just anybody.
    One name that should be in circulation is Gus Schumacher, who has both establishment credentials and a solid understanding of sustainable ag policy.  He was the Commissioner of Agriculture in Massachusetts in the 1980s and then held several senior positions at USDA during the Clinton Administration.  He ultimately served as Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, so he has already been Congressionally approved once (Do you think Michael Pollan wants to fill out that invasive vetting questionaire?)  Schumacher has been super-active in  farmers market promotion, the New Farmer Re-Entry project in Massachusetts and other refugee farmer initiatives.  He would be an excellent choice.

  7. Steph Larsen says:

    Can anyone point me to articles suggesting that Hightower or Schumacher are being considered by the Obama administration?

    There are many good choices out there, and the people whose names are being considered are on the short list because they strategized and put themselves in a position to be considered. In the case of John Boyd, he has the support of the powerful  Congressional Black Caucus (of which Barack Obama is a member until tomorrow when his resignation from Congress takes effect).

    In large numbers, people are very powerful too. Had the grassroots organized around a candidate, maybe the list wouldn’t look the way it does now. That didn’t materialize, but people can still make an impact with their opinions.

    Many of these appointments are confirmed by the Senate, so one idea is to send your (realistic, non-Secretary) suggestions of lower-level appointed positions to your most senior Democratic Senator. If both your Senators are Republicans, send suggestions to the most senior House member from your state.

  8. Sue says:

    Well, any real analysis of this would wipe out several of the names.  While it is true that in politics anything can happen and a person’s word is certainly not written in stone, we can assume a few things.  Obama isn’t going to select someone who was a hired lobbyist for an industry they would eventually oversea.  He has said that several times in a public forum and there is no need to flip on the position.  That wipes out Stenholm (a man with no morals and even less conviction), and Buis (lingers around the same sub level as Stenholm).  The most likely person is Vilsack, though Obama and the agricultural community would best be served by Boyd.  He is the only person to fight for others and not his pockets.

  9. Steph, I’d love to see:
    1. your pros and cons on each of these candidates
     2. More detail on the folks who would really make great Agriculture Secretaries. 
    Your piece strikes me as the most authoritative I’ve seen on the subject.” Let’s give some serious attention: headshots, bios, pros and cons… as well to all the contenders, and not just the ones we habe read about elsewhere.
    Would you be able to do write-ups of Mark Ritchie, and Jim Hightower, and Gus Schumacher, Jim Riddle, and the others you mentioned above? (or write to them, and ask them to submit these things if they’re interested?)  

  10. Ali B. says:

    Farmboy is spot-on. The elephant in the room is role of the USDA, which is charged with expanding markets for agricultural products AND with food safety and nutrition education/promotion. There is an inherent conflict of interest here — the agency is literally charged with promoting the very agricultural products that its food pyramid warns against (even with significant softening of those warnings).
    Even in an Obama administration, the USDA would have to do its job. Like it or not (and I don’t), one of the biggest parts of that job is to make sure people keep buying all of the U.S. grown products, which for the most part is corn, corn, and more corn (and wheat. And soy. Not kale). Before any real change could happen, we need to deal with that conflict of interest.
    That said, I find Vilsack a depressing choice.

  11. Gina says:

    Um, yeah. Vilsack really really scares me. Not only does he scream corn and soybeans to me, he is waaaay in bed with Monsanto.

    We need to gather a short list of the best people for the job (sorry, not Michael Pollan) and find a way to get it as close to Obama as possible. How can we do this?

  12. Bonnie P. says:

    Marjorie, Gina: Steph can’t do pros/cons on the shortlist of candidates because of her job. And I can’t because I don’t know enough and am swamped. But Jill Richardson aka OrangeClouds115 has such a comprehensive post over at DailyKos, with 600 comments and counting, including one by Tom Murphy that lists the preferred sustainable ag candidates.


  13. farmboy says:

    I think that approaching the selection of the USDA Secretary is comparable to the negotions that led to the 2008 Farm Bill.  It is unrealistic to expect Agribusiness to give up what they have worked so hard to obtain and what is invaluable to their survival.  As Jack Nicholson’s character in Prizzi’s Honor says, “The Prizzis would rather eat their children than part with their money…and they are very fond of their children.”  We need to get to the table and see that our issues are addressed and our needs are met.  That’s why I feel the 2008 Farm BIll was more than half full.  Regarding the Secretary, an all or nothing attitude will fail and lead to disappointment.  Let’s focus on teh number two job – the Deputy slot.  This position is more responsible for running the USDA, but it is incredibly powerful, flies below the radar, and is a could be stepping stone to the Secretary’s position (though patronage usually means a brand new face gets tapped).  Richard Romminger served as Deputy Secretary for eight years in the Clinton Administration and did a world of good.  Gus Schumacher in that slot at this time would be a major achievement.  By the way, I do not expect Agricusiness to hold its turf forever, but it’s going to have to collapse under its own weight.  Just like a raging alcoholic who refuses treatment.

  14. Steph- thank you for this synopsis.  What I wonder is why all the fabulous sustainable ag policy organizers such as yourself took a break after the passing of the Farm Bill instead of working to develop nominations for political appointments at the USDA?  If we are too late to make meaningful suggestions to president-elect Obama, then we let Big Ag & Farm Bureau beat us to the punch again.
    Also, we really need to start advocating (early) for nominees to these positions that don’t come from big subsidy states or receive subsidies themselves.  How about A.G. Kawamura, head of the California Dept. of Food & Agriculture and a fruit producer himself?

  15. Elanor says:

    Rebecca, I’ll let Steph speak for herself about how she’s been keeping busy (FB implementation isn’t exactly a vacation)- but I have a question on your second point. You’re not the first person I’ve heard recommend A.G., but I’ve also heard people describe him as a well-meaning guy who has very, very few actual accomplishments for sustainable ag to boast about from his time at CDFA. Can you point me to some successes he’s had during his tenure? Something that shows he’ll go to the mat for the sustainable ag community rather than just give it lots of lipservice? I know his background is impressive, but I’d like to know more about what he’s actually done in the post.

  16. Ned says:

    President-elect Obama’s plan to totally eliminate the farmer-elected FSA county committee system will finally help bring social justice to a myriad of socially disadvantaged farmers throughout the country.

  17. Oh yes, I’m sure Steph and all her colleagues have been very busy with FB implementation issues, but who will lead those agencies has a lot to do with implementation.
    As for A.G., I think the most impressive thing he has done for Sust. Ag has been holding a series of listening sessions around the state on what the future of agriculture should look like for California.  Although I am not certain, I believe he has been collaborating with the Roots of Change council as well.  I know more about his work out of office, which included running a family fruit farm but also starting a gleaning organization that gathers excess produce from the fields to donate to food banks.  I think he is a better choice because of his background in ‘specialty crops’, the fact that he does not grow commodity crops, and his interest in increasing fruit and vegetable production and consumption.  I know a lot of folks in California don’t like A.G because of his handling of the Light Brown Apple Moth situation, but he had little control over a quarantine that the USDA APHIS plunked down on California.

  18. Angel S. says:

    Thanks for this blog. I’m very interested in the ag choice. I’m all for John Boyd. He is for the farmer. He is not Big Agricultural Business!

  19. Steph Larsen says:

    There is an element of truth to what Rebecca says. After the Farm Bill passed, the entire sustainable agriculture, food, and rural communities (including YOU, fine reader!) should have done a better job of strategizing what ALL of the next steps were. Farm Bill implementation is a necessary one, and it is a huge massive undertaking. Making sure a bill is carried out the way it was supposed to tends to overwhelm limited resources, and precious few are willing or available after the long Farm Bill fight to help. If we drop that implementation ball, entire programs get messed up and the work you and we put into the Farm Bill backslides.
    But the election was major, and although I will remind you that a few months ago the race for President seemed pretty close, we should have done a better job of suggesting to some great allies in both parties that they might consider putting themselves in a position to be considered for Secretary. Let’s learn that lesson this time, and get into the habit of positioning ourselves earlier.
    The Secretary does set the tone of the entire Department, but I’ll say it again: the programs we care about, as well as the ones that
    inhibit sustainability, are run by Administrators, who answer mostly to Under Secretaries. We need (and can get) awesome people in these positions.
    Let’s not drop that ball too. If you know people who could be good at USDA, direct them to change.gov and request an application. By the time they get the email, I will (hopefully!) have my next post done, which talks about some of the appointed positions besides Secretary.
    This is our best chance to make a difference at USDA.

  20. Yes Steph, you are right on all fronts.  Here in California, and hopefully in other states, folks are organizing to develop nominations for our state USDA appointees, namely the FSA director and the Rural Development director.  We have a conference call next week to work up a list of nominees.  These folks are the ‘gatekeepers’ to a lot of money flowing into our state and have a lot of power to determine where that money goes- either big ag or family farmers. Thanks to Margaret Krome at Michael Fields Ag Institute for pointing out this to me.

  21. markt says:

    farmboy for Sec of Ag.  If the USDA simply inspected for sanitation and health, and got out of the CorpAg handout business, the family farmer-still the most productive food producer on the planet-would figure out how to thrive long term, and provide good product at reasonable prices.
    If Obama is serious, put someone in who will re-establish the fertilizer supply network; pricing and availability has gone completely haywire, and no pol seems to care or even understand.  Or pick fifty programs that only benefit CorpAg and eliminate them.
    Or if a program takes more than 30 pages to apply for, or requires additional different forms to be filled out and filed, can it.
    Or pay to train a new generation of large animal vets, make them gov employees.  Driving halfway across the state to get a calf treated is insane.

  22. MLO says:

    Though unlikely, Michigan governor Jennifer  Granholm would be a politically feasible choice with actual agricultural experience – experience with policy friendly to small farmers.
    Though there is agribusiness and GMO in Michigan, the primary farm economy is the small owner in Michigan – and it is the second largest industry here.  Even the largest cherry and apple orchards are still small in comparison to the acreage in such places as Iowa.
    Michigan does have some silly laws for farm producers – like any other state – but most of them have been around since at least the 1920s.  Interestingly, they were developed at the same time the Michigan State Police was cleaned up of massive corruption.
    Honestly, I would hope she is on the short list for Interior Secretary as she understands the unique needs of the INTERNATIONAL waters known as The Great Lakes – something the rest of the country has repeatedly shown to have very little knowledge of – where she could also influence some USDA policies through work with water rights, forestry, and land conservation.
    If only Governor Milliken – who saved the Michigan Family Farm – was not over 90.  He would be the perfect choice for head of the USDA.

  23. phliparoonie says:

    Lest we forget:  USDA is also the home of the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Two “used to be” stalwart institutions of wise use (ie., conservation) of resources.  The current undersecretaries and chief of NRCS are c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e-l-y political in their resumes and have all but ruined institutional natural resource stewardship.  It is time to turn the clock back and return professionals to these seats of leadership and policy implementation.  Please.