What others think: Vilsack good choice for ag secretaryA Midwesterner with a life grounded in small-town rural America seems like an ideal choice for the new U.S. secretary of agriculture. Tom Vilsack, former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa, is President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Secretary Ed Schafer, former two-term Republican governor of North Dakota.
By: The Forum, The Jamestown Sun
A Midwesterner with a life grounded in small-town rural America seems like an ideal choice for the new U.S. secretary of agriculture. Tom Vilsack, former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa, is President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Secretary Ed Schafer, former two-term Republican governor of North Dakota.
Vilsack is qualified by both political experience and his knowledge of production agriculture. He began his public career as a small-town mayor in southeast Iowa, where agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. As a state legislator and governor, he championed agriculture, from support for family farms to development of Iowa’s ethanol industry.
One of the factors that separate Vilsack from previous ag secretaries is his enthusiastic support for biofuels, specifically ethanol. His state has been a leader in that field. He understands corn-to-ethanol is transitional technology, eventually to be replaced by ethanol derived from biomass such as switch grass, cornstalks and forest waste.
But probably most importantly for the nation’s farmers and ranchers, Vilsack is realistic about farm support programs. Not long ago he said in an interview with The Washington Post that he favors a shift from traditional subsidies to new kinds of supports for farmers. As Iowa governor, he supported recent farm bills. The 2008 bill, which has strong support in farm country, is being implemented by Schafer, but that process will not be done before the Obama administration takes over. Vilsack will take on that complicated task.
The new secretary likely will experience a smooth transition. During a visit a few weeks ago with The Forum’s Editorial Board, Schafer said one of his priorities was to work with the new administration to make the transition at the USDA as seamless as possible. Schafer, who has enjoyed his tenure at the USDA, wants to make sure his successor gets a good start and is able to step easily into the work of implementing the farm bill. That’s good news for Vilsack and a feather in Schafer’s public service cap.
The new USDA chief faces a shifting, treacherous farming and agribusiness landscape. The near-record commodity prices of last summer have collapsed. A global recession could soften the export markets on which American producers depend. Fuel and fertilizer prices have retreated, but the long-term outlook suggests those input costs will rise again. Current farm legislation will be in place for several years, but the work of preparing for a new farm bill never stops.
Vilsack appears to be uniquely qualified for the USDA job. Governors know how to manage bureaucracies. A farm state governor knows the benefit or harm federal farm policy can visit on farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses. One of the jobs Vilsack took after leaving the governor’s office was at Iowa State University, where he analyzed risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. That technology is on agriculture’s cutting edge.
While the secretary’s job is far bigger than a focus on farming in the Midwest, Vilsack’s pedigree suggests producers in states such as North Dakota and Minnesota will have a friend at the USDA. We wish him success in one of the most difficult, most demanding jobs in Washington.