AgSuck: Looks like Tom Vilsack to head USDA

The New York Times’ Caucus blog is reporting that President-Elect Obama has settled on former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his Secretary of Agriculture.

While just a few weeks ago I wrote that Vilsack didn’t seem like the most horrible choice for AgSec, compared to some of the other names being floated (Hello, Dennis Wolfe and Collin Petersen!), that was before a Don Quixote of an Iowa activist named Dave Murphy launched a petition to plead with Obama’s transition team to consider six potential reformers for the position instead. Signed by some of the biggest names in the sustainable food world — Wendell Berry, Bill Niman, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Alice Waters, etc. — the petition today passed 54,000 signatures, thanks to publicity from the New York Times, Daily Kos, BoingBoing, and others.

Well, tough cookies. That’s not how politics works, apparently. (Right about now our favorite guest poster Steph Larsen is saying “I told you so.” But nicely.)

Read my previous post for more about Vilsack, which drew heavily on this in-depth look from The Center for Rural Affairs about Vilsack’s stances on subsidies, meat producer consolidation, and genetically modified foods. Our main concern about him is that he did nothing to stop the proliferation of or regulate CAFOs in Iowa as governor, and his pro-GMO background and ties to the biotech industry. The Organic Consumers Association has a list of his biotech shenanigans.

Well, we dared to dream. Thanks for all those who signed the petition, blogged it, and passed it on. And a big round of applause for Dave Murphy, who got this whole petition party started and tilted tirelessly at Washington’s windmills like a madman with a laptop for a lance day and night for the past week. Jill Richardson has a great post up about Dave over at her blog, La Vida Locavore.

Next time, we’ll have to get organized faster.

23 Responsesto “AgSuck: Looks like Tom Vilsack to head USDA”

  1. Steph Larsen says:

    Okay, so now we know who it is – it could have been much better or much (much) worse.
    Let’s learn the organizing lesson Bonnie talks about and organize around pushing the sustainable farming and strong rural community message. The Center for Rural Affairs has an open letter to Vilsack on our website. Please consider signing on.
    And don’t forget to weigh in with and your Senate offices about other people who would be good at USDA in other positions. See this post for descriptions and ideas on who else we want at USDA.

  2. Green Bean says:

    Ahhhh man! This is so NOT who I wanted to see for Sec of Ag.  Thanks to Steph Larsen for the suggestions of where to go from here.  We cannot back down.

  3. Jack Everitt says:

    Obviously to Obama, “Change” means Change Very Little. How incredibly disappointing.

  4. Amy says:

    I kept hoping that since one of Obama’s favorite restaurants in Chicago is Frontera Grill that perhaps he’d be a stronger supporter of small ag over big ag, but I guess not. 

  5. Ali B. says:

    You know, one of the things that most struck me in this whole process was how a Boing Boing commenter asked, “what exactly is broken about our food system?” It seems so obvious to those of us who hang out at places like the Ethicurean and Food Democracy and whose shelves are stocked with books by Pollan and Waters and Kingsolver and Schlosser. But most of the nation hasn’t read these books yet. Chances are, most of our closest friends still haven’t.
    But it’s changing. Look at the food movement today versus five years ago – I’ll count myself as an example. Five years ago, I started buying “organic chicken nuggets,” thinking that was health food.  Five years ago, I had never been to a farmer’s market, and I thought that eating locally was all about preserving one’s view (I know, shame on me, right?).  Five years ago, our farmers’ market didn’t take food stamps, the milk at my daughter’s school was still made with rBGH, our community had fewer CSAs, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma was still just a glimmer in Pollan’s eye. Things change. People change. People learn. I did, and frankly, I’m not always the quickest study.
    I’m genuinely disappointed that change won’t be more sweeping. But I’m trying to remind myself that this isn’t the end. It’s maybe just more of the beginning than I had hoped. Thanks to Steph for that reminder. Now let’s all go sign that open letter to our future Secretary of Agriculture.

  6. I’m disappointed but I didn’t really expect better. It’s “change” as usual.

  7. IslandPress says:

    So Obama has picked his energy, environmental and agriculture posts, but what about a “Food Secretary”? Food historian, and others in the food cognoscenti, think the Pres.-elect should still consider that: “It’s a compelling idea. America has become a truly urban nation, with less than 2 percent of us farming but 100 percent of us eating. And with all that eating, our country now faces a crisis in public health owing to epidemic obesity-a result of overproduction of insalubrious foods.”

  8. Bill Harshaw says:

    You all now need to organize for the next levels. Which Under Secretaries are you most concerned about and who are your preferred candidates. Who do you want for Administrators of FSA and NRCS? Don’t stop now.

  9. vera says:

    Oh yeah. Keep on organizing, and keep on losing. How many of such picks will finally convince you that Obama is not at all about real change, and that he intends to go on jibbering about growth, and technofixes, and more bailouts (where is the money supposed to come from?), and more postponement of truth and reality.  Flickeringly, I did get seduced and hoped, and I figured, here in ag he could pick a reformer, since he did not anywhere else. But he is just Hillary in pants.

  10. Steph Larsen says:

    Vera, I can understand your disillusionment. However, organizing is the only way anything positive gets done. I’d rather be working for something and fail than work for nothing and succeed at nothing.

  11. vera says:

    Steph, have you read Jensen’s Strangely Like War? The forest activists organized like crazy. They worked nights and weekends for the old growth forests, for years. And they won, for 5 minutes. Then the powers that be changed the rules and mowed down the woods anyways. Trying to change the power structure is a sucker’s game. Even when we win, we lose.

  12. Bonnie P. says:

    Well what else are we going to do, sit around and watch “American Idol” and eat Cheet-Os until our flesh fuses into the couch and they have to chop through the wall to get us to the hospital? Nah.

    I think it’s important to engage with the world, not narcotize yourself or turn inward in disgust, whether you waste spend your time “trying to change the power structure” or making art or growing food.

  13. vera says:

    Mmm… a bit of fallacious thinking, Bonnie? I see a person banging their head against the wall, and try to convince them to stop. They turn to me and say: “but what else am I going to do, sit around and watch American Idol and eat Cheet-Os until my flesh fuses into the couch?” Surely we have more options than these two. :-)

  14. Bruce says:

    you know we can all sit around and lament the choice, or we can make our own choice to be active, vocal participants in our own democracy.  As long as we say nothing will happen, we are banging our heads against the wall or others have failed…that is exactly what will happen.  Eventually nothing may come to pass that satisfies any of us completely on farm issues…but any advancement is better than a step back or to stagnate in our current situation.
    President Elect Obama, our congresspeople and representatives do not act at all unless we sit on their doorsteps, literally or figuratively, and force them to do so.  Sure there are lobbyists and money against us, but look at the second ‘bailout’ of the automotive industry.  After the first ‘bailout’ was not well received they started to look at their constituentcy before they just jumped in and ‘bailed out’ the automotive industry.
    To do something and fail is always better than to do nothing….

  15. vera says:

    Gosh. Hello? We don’t have democracy. We have oligarchy with some democratic overlay. And to do stuff that will just waste your energy on feeding a bad system is worse than a lot of things I can think of.  That’s exactly what the system loves. Using up people’s lives on tilting at the windmills.
    Now we should be happy that they bailed out the Detroit dinosaurs, because it was not as horrendously bad as the first bailout?! Say… how little will you settle for? For how long?

  16. I want to be bailed out too. Since I’m not greedy like Wall Street and the Big 3 Automakers I’m willing to take just $1,000,000.00. In a pinch I’ll settle for half that. A tenth??? Geez…
    One of the things I loved about this whole bailout fiasco was how the government said there were some businesses that were too big to be allowed to fail but there were others that were to small to bother with. This strikes me as very much like the whole subsidy issue that’s been going on for decades.
    PS. No, I don’t really want a bailout, or a subsidy. I would like my $13,500 back – the amount it is going to cost our family to pay for the Wall Street bailout, plus interest…

  17. farmboy says:

    Please, no more hand wringing.  If we insist on taking our ball and going home when we don’t get what we want, the game in DC will keep right on going without us.  I saw this statement in promotional material for a DC lobbying firm:  If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.  How true.
    The struggle for sustainable agriculture is not about Tom Vilsack; it’s not about Barack Obama.  It is about our society, one person at a time, coming to the realization that how we produce and distribute our food must become the fundamental pathway for insuring a peaceful and ecologically viable planet for our children. Environmentally, economically and culturally, the world is in meltdown mode.  We are entering a bottleneck (think of the biodiversity we are shedding as the neck narrows) and we have to think about how to stabalize our position, work through the worst of it.  What will be on the other side?  That’s what prayers are for.
    I want to re-visit Ali’s comments (#5) from above:  the sustainable agriculture movement is LIGHT YEARS ahead of where it was five years ago.  Look at the school garden movement – have we seen a 100, 200 or 500% increase in the number of school gardens since then?  Farmers markets, CSAs, cow shares, farm to cafeteria – there will be no stopping this movement because IT WORKS AT EVERY LEVEL.  Only when it was dismissed out of hand as archaic and inefficient could it be held back.  Once people actually start building sustainable agriculture into their lives, it changes them for the better and they never give it up.  It’s OK if the conversion rate is low; the retention rate is extremely high.  It’s the same principle that has kept the Gradeful Dead in business forever!
    One more observation about Ali’s comments.  She sites the books by Pollan, Waters, Kingsolver and Schlosser on our bookshelves.  All extremely valuable, but none of them are actual farmers.  However committed and insightful they may be, they cannot be the sole voices speaking for sustainable agriculture.  We must insure that the farmers themselves are heard and that they speak with their own voices.  I welcome people’s suggestions for such a reading list, and here is my first:  The Soil and Health, by Sir Albert Howard.  We all generally know Howard’s name and think of him as the compost guy, but his work provides a far more comprehensive understanding of the role that agriculture plays in healthy communities and a healthy plant.  The well being of the soil, the plants, the animals and human beings is immutably linked.  We must re-establish a reverance for all creation as the foundation of agricultural production.

  18. Karl Seidel says:

    Business. This is all tied up in business. Businesses have money and they lobby for their best interests. They put their money where their interests are and that’s something we don’t do as consumers and activists. No significant change can ever occur anywhere in the U.S. unless business owners are engaged with in a way that they are faced with do-or-die choices. Most of the comments I’m reading sound naive – almost as if we’re living in a socialist environment. Of course we’re not. So we need to engage business owners. Find the right pitch and they will come. Otherwise we’re all just spinning our wheels and hoping for something that is not forthcoming.

  19. farmboy says:

    Business, in the sense of free enterprise, can and should have a prominent role in the growth of sustainable agriculture.  One of the great things about a market economy is that when consumers decide what they want, producers can move quickly to meet that demand.  However, the sustainable agriculture movement always has and always will have a significant communal  or person-person orientation as an essential component of its success.  The truth is that producing healthy natural food is not scalable; a farmer can’t triple the size of production, cut per unit cost in half and produce the same quality of food.   Capitalism always seeks to take advantage of economies of scale and those economies top off very quickly with real food.  That’s why direct to consumer sales and food cooperatives will remain the foundation of the sustainable food movement.  This phenomenon is not more widely recognized because we have a corporate owned media that can’t recognize anything non-corporate in the marketplace. Take for example the National Cooperative Grocers Association, a national federation of one hundred plus food cooperatives that collectively do $1 billion in sales annually.  I bet you’ve never seen them mentioned in a national news story about organic or local foods, though every story of that type I read has an obligatory quote from somebody at Whole Foods.  If they don’t quote a Whole Foods employee, they’ll quote a random shopper – as if they know more than the successful co-op operating across town for teh last 30 years!  Business has a seat at the sustainable agriculture table, but they’ll never chair the meeting.  It has to come to health, of people and the planet. 

  20. Karl Seidel says:

    Well said Farmboy! And you won’t find me arguing for biz to head the talks because their interests are varied and unsustainable. But who cares if you and I or anyone else say it or know it? Business leaders have the power to buy into and and lead the charge if the appeal is apparent – so obvious that they see a win/lose proposition. Again – it has to be as obvious as Butz’s “fencepost to fencepost” proclamation and it has to hit them in the pocket. The “smart” money is betting on technology curing all that ails our fail food system. Personally I don’t see that proposition working out in time and to the degree of quality I’d like to sustain from the land as we know it – unaltered by a monocultural approach to farming that is decimating the land we derive our nutrition from. So I don’t think that money is so smart. Fortunately, hopefully there are a lot of people waking up out of their sleep now who will demand better standards. But now I’m just fantasizing aren’t I?

  21. snake says:

    Thanks farmboy…I love what you wrote…and others too…

    Vera…Actually, we’re suppose to have a ‘Representative Republic’…Not a ‘democracy’… It looks to me what the current ‘system’ loves is mediocrity, and people who passively accept such horrid mediocre ‘standards’ of just about everything…And if some activist, well organized people end up with some bruised heads from ‘bashing their heads against the wall’…Well, by god, they are very lucky indeed…Throughout history, many people who have been daring and brave enough to confront an oppressive system, became very unpopular for doing so, and often ended up scorned, losing everything, and dying for it…(Helloooo, Declaration of Independence signers!)… So, organize on everyone!!…Galley ho!!…Let’s become more and more educated and go get some bruised heads!…: )…It’s the least we can do!!…And keep all those grassroots connections moving along…That is where the real change happens, and can keep being nurtured to grow…

  22. vera says:

    Whoa snake; if you keep slithering thataway yer bound to have your head smashed and your tail crushed, both, and nothing to show for it. Do we have a representative republic, hm? How are the people now moving into power representing me or you? They are not as repugnant as some of their predecessors, but that says damn little, eh?
    I suggest your head is precious and a shame to be wasted on banging against a wall.
    Listen to the real farmers amongst us. P*ss on idea of waiting/pleading for the government to rescue us. Building local solutions has worked and will keep on working. So go start a Victory Garden, snake. You’ll be glad you did.

  23. Ali says:

    Huh. All along, I thought I didn’t agree with Vera, and then out she comes with those final three sentences. And it turns out I do.