The President's Choice
President-elect Obama has not indicated his choice for Secretary of Agriculture. Therefore, predictions on the outcome of this process are, at best, speculative. We have no special insight into the President-elect's selection process. However, multiple media reports have established an unofficial "short list," and my colleague Steph Larsen wrote an excellent post reviewing the potential field of candidates (also posted at Ethicurean).
The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported that Governor Tom Vilsack is the "near shoo-in" in this process.
I have known Governor Vilsack for over a decade. Considering all the ongoing speculation and critique of the former Governor, I thought I should weigh in. There are a lot of questions that one might ask a potential Secretary of Agriculture. I picked three.
Reforming Farm Programs
Historically, Governor Vilsack has shown consistent support for reforming farm programs; especially making farm program payment limits more effective, reducing subsidies to the nation's largest farms and investing the savings in conservation, rural development, nutrition, etc.
A 2006 Washington Post article wrote of the Governor:
There may be no better sign of the changing debate over the nation's farm subsidies: A Midwestern governor running for president calls for cuts in a system that has steered hundreds of millions of dollars a year to his state...
Politicians such as Vilsack have joined a host of interest groups from across the political spectrum that are pressing for changes in government assistance to agriculture. They want the money moved from large farmers to conservation, nutrition, rural development and energy research. Vilsack, for example, favors programs that improve environmental practices on farms...
Governor Vilsack has reiterated these positions since that time, both publicly and, quite recently, to me. Last week I had a conversation with Governor Vilsack about these issues. I asked him what areas need investment the most, to which he responded that such a question is like asking which of his two sons he loves the best. "There will be an opportunity next year with the re-authorization of child nutrition programs to address that need first. The Conservation Stewardship Program must be more adequately funded than in the past to preserve our most precious resources - our soil and water. And rural entrepreneurial development, next generation biofuels, expanded wind/solar/geo-thermal uses for land, specialty crops, local foods efforts and rural, high-speed broadband internet access need investment," Vilsack added.
Governor Vilsack's most ardent detractors have focused on his promotion of biotechnology as an economic opportunity for Iowa and Iowa farmers. Organic farmers and organic consumer advocates have great trepidation regarding Vilsack's full-throated support for biotechnology, fearing the destruction of the integrity of identity-preserved and organic production, processing, transportation and marketing systems from contamination by genetically modified materials. They have legitimate concerns.
Because those concern are, arguably, the most significant criticism of Governor Vilsack as a potential Secretary of Agriculture and because the conflict between biotechnology and organic farming is so fundamental and structural in nature, I felt there was no other way of finding out more than to ask him. So, last week, I did.
He offered his priorities for protecting organic farmers and organic production systems: labeling to provide consumers a stronger voice in the marketplace and create opportunities for farmers to develop high-valued markets for their products, coupled with separation distances and other similar production, transportation and processing requirements that would protect organic crops from contamination, and establishment of clear liability from the biotechnology company, processor or handler responsible for the contamination when it occurs.
Additionally, Governor Vilsack talked about the importance of preserving and strengthening the integrity of the approval process for new biotechnologies; that, from USDA's perspective, new technologies should have the burden of proof that they will not harm markets for conventional, identity-preserved and organic products; and they should be of benefit to farmers, not just biotechnology companies.
Precautionary approval of new biotechnologies is crucial. The introduction of pharmaceutical corn in Iowa, for example, could threaten conventional markets for export and domestic human consumption as well as organic farmers. I have disagreed with Governor Vilsack over biotechnology issues several times. But I am encouraged by the responses above and by his open-minded approach and willingness to learn from past experience and mistakes alike.
Livestock Market Reforms
I still have the pen that Governor Vilsack gave me that he used to sign the livestock market reform and price reporting legislation that I worked on in the Iowa Legislature in 1999. I know from the experience of working on that legislation and during subsequent debates over livestock market reforms that Governor Vilsack has consistently supported crucial livestock market reforms.
I asked Governor Vilsack how USDA should address the challenge of more effective enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, considering the abysmal record of the Packers and Stockyards Administration over the last decade. He pointed out that the 2008 farm bill contains, for the first time ever, a livestock competition title and that the first priority for USDA's enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act will be proper implementation and aggressive enforcement of the provisions in that title. And, he added, that prioritization includes writing effective rules for enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards prohibition of "unreasonable preferences" in order to prevent price discrimination by packers against family farm livestock producers.
He also told me, "I agree with President-elect Obama's support for the provision in the farm bill that would have prohibited packers from owning livestock - support that he expressed both during the farm bill debate and his campaign. And I agree with Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley who, along with a number of other Senators from farm and ranch states, have been ardent supporters of ending this kind of direct vertical integration by prohibiting packer ownership of livestock."
Reforming livestock markets is another one of those crucial, fundamental, structural issues that is, in my opinion, a litmus test for the next Secretary of Agriculture. Governor Vilsack's track record in this area is good, if somewhat limited. His public statements as Governor and as a candidate for President have been supportive of livestock market reforms, but have never figured prominently in either his campaigns or his gubernatorial priorities. Although, to be honest, that does not separate him from most other elected officials or public figures at this level.
Vertical integration decreases market access for family farmers, decreases prices paid to independent producers, and fuels the construction of more and more CAFOs and the demise of more and more family farms. The Senate has twice passed the legislation banning packer ownership of livestock - in two farm bills - but both times it was removed in conference.
During the last 12 years, three Secretaries of Agriculture have said virtually nothing and never lifted a finger to do anything about this issue (despite considerable authority under existing laws and myriad opportunities in both farm bill debates). Support from the Secretary of Agriculture and the White House could make all the difference in finally securing this necessary reform.
At the end of the day...
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict when, where and from whom leadership will emerge. The book on Tom Vilsack is not complete, and perhaps that is a good thing. He does not get a perfect score on my litmus tests. But, when I disagree with him in the future I will continue to engage him, just as I always have, whether he is a private citizen or the Secretary of Agriculture. And he will engage me, just as he always has.
I hope that, at the end of the day, our next Secretary of Agriculture is the kind of leader that can help create a future for rural America with thriving family farms and ranches and vibrant rural communities. I believe Governor Vilsack can provide that leadership. Perhaps he just might get the chance.