Monday, December 22, 2008

A New Secretary

With a new president comes all sorts of new things ... including a new Secretary of Agriculture. And, just this past week we found out that Mr. Obama's choice would be ex-governor Tom Vilsack of my own state (the great state of Iowa). I didn't catch much of the farm news this week, but from what I did hear it seems that they were fairly pleased with the choice if for no other reason than the fact that he is from Iowa and so he would be intimately concerned with the "needs" of today's Iowa farmer. On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there that are less that pleased with the pick.

Michael Pollan said, "a good day for corn. Less good for eaters." And, Allan Nation (editor of The Stockman Grassfarmer) wrote, "This ends the speculation that a 'sustainable ag' candidate might get the nod and the appointment is a major coup for Big Corn and the ethanol industry." In fact you can read more of what Mr. Nation had to say by checking out his blog.

What I know about Mr. Vilsack is that he was a two-term governor in our state who only ran for two terms ... after that he had a short lived run for the presidency. I also know that he actually isn't a native Iowan (he was born in Pittsburgh) and that he spent his time most recently as a lawyer among other things. I do know though that he is probably acutely aware of the workings of big agriculture and the ethanol industry in Iowa and beyond and seems to be a helper in the cause of bio-fuels.

It seems that some of the organic organizations aren't very pleased either because of the way he has reached out to the GMO crowd and the ethanol industry. In fact after a little wiki search I found out that the Organic Consumers Organization (never heard of it) thought that Mr. Vilsack was a poor choice, "particularly as energy and environmental reforms were a key point of the Obama campaign."

If we have any sense of history we know that the Secretary of Agriculture does have a lot of power to shape our country (see Earl Butz) if they are allowed to do so. I'm not quite sure what Mr. Vilsack has in mind, but it should be interesting ... at least he is an Iowan ... well, sort of.


Anonymous said...

I'm actually not pleased with the selection of Vilsack as Ag Secretary. It's a political pick based in party politics and not in the interest of agriculture, in my opinion. His only qualification is his mailing address. There really hasn't been a Secretary of Agriculture with honest ties to agriculture since the 1950s. Men like the Wallaces and others who were tied to agriculture through actual farming or through the publication of farm journals meant that the Secretary had ties to the land, to the people who lived on the land. Since the 1950s/1960s, the people selected to serve in the secretay position have been tied to agribusiness and politics, putting the company and business above the people living the life. Look at Earl Butz, perhaps the worst Ag Secretary we've had. He's the individual the told farmers to plant fence row to fence row, that American agriculture was a weapon in the Cold War and not a way of life and a means of living. Thus came the farm crisis of the 1980s. Butz told American farmers to get big or get out, that the small farmer was a nuisance to the concept of industrial agriculture.

Just my opinion.

Rich said...

I don't understand how anyone thinks the majority of the proposed policy changes for the Department of Agriculture will actually work.

How are we going to have more corn-based ethanol while accusing corn farmers of causing high levels of environmental damage?

How are we going to have conservation programs that convert cropland to pasture while also encouraging more ethanol production?

How is a grass-based agriculture going to emerge if livestock producers are required to pay an emission tax on their livestock?

If (and that is a big if) ethanol can actually provide a significant source of fuel, then why would big producers of the raw materials for this vital product not be eligible for farm payments? (due to the proposed $250,000 payment cap)

Who is going to define a CAFO; will a high density grazing operation be classified and regulated the same as a feedlot based on the level of confinement, the amount of exposed soil, etc.? How long before someone with a grass-based grazing operation is being fined for excessive emissions in addition to paying a livestock emission tax?

It would be nice to have a farm policy without the contradictory programs that work against each other while failing to accomplish anything meaningful. How much money and effort is being wasted seeking two (or more) opposing goals at the same time?

Yeoman said...

Don't forget that the US has essentially two ag secretaries, as the Sec of the Interior is also sort of one, given that he administers the public grass, to an extent, West of the MIss.

Right now, the jury's out of these appointments. Vilsack and Sallizar, or Vilsack or Sallizar might be good, or not. Time will tell. Right now, I'm a bit more impressed iwth Sallizar than I am iwth Vilsack, but who knows.

Yeoman said...

To add, I wonder if we really should have expected anything else out of Mr. Obama. He has, after all, no experience with farming at all, and no familiarity, that I'm aware of, with farm policy. So, I'd expect him to be like JFK in terms of policy (a disastrous President, in my view), in sounding "progressive", while being pretty ignorant in a lot of area. Here's one that I wouldn't expect him to know anything on.

As his experience is urban, and urban areas depend on scale, I'd sort of expect him to only think in terms of big ag. I hope I'm wrong, but I'd guess not.

Yeoman said...

To add yet again, I don't mean the "ignorant" comment insultingly. Ignorant only means not informed, and I don't know why he'd be informed on agriculture.

That being the case, I'd be surprised if he'd thought of any of these issues as much as we have, and I'd be sort of surprised if he has the same concerns about them that we do.

Yeoman said...

Not to hijack Ethan's blog, but let me pose a question.

If you (dear reader, and Ethan) were appointed Ag Sec, what would you do.

We'll presume (a big presumption) actual support from the President, and Congress.

So, if you had the reins of power, in ag, what would you do?

Okay, having stated it, I'll state what I'd do.

First of all, I'd ask the President to abolish the Department of the Interior and merge it with Agriculture. Interior need not exist, for the most part, and it's bipolar anyway, with so many competing interest it has to satisfy. It's main purpose, whether it recognizes it or not, is agriculture, as without agriculture (ranching, silvaculture, and the like) it really isn't managing anything.

Okay, as ag sec, I'd now manage the interior too.

I'd favor individually owned farms and ranches. No big outfits. No corporations. And the producers, the meat packers and the like, would have to be more in number, and smaller, as well.

I'd put the end to the development of ag land. They're not making any more.

I'd support the end of subsidies, but I'd encourage farming, rather than the retirement of agricultural ground, as has sometimes been encouraged.

I'd require imported agricultural products to be subject to the same standards as our own. I wouldn't seek to keep foreign products out, but I would expect foreign products to be subject to our standards.

That's a starter. What else should the ag sec do, or what would you do?

Rich said...

The more I think about what I would do as Ag Secretary, the more I realize how complicated the question actually is.

First, I would suggest removing programs like the Food Stamp Program from the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps should have little to do with agriculture and moving it to another department (if not eliminating it completely) would allow a more true accounting of the budget.

Of course, I would work towards eliminating or significantly reducing subsidies, although I admit it would need to be phased in and balanced with how other nations eliminate their subsidies (which might be an impossible task).

I would eliminate programs that idle land, like CRP. In combination with the elimination of crop subsidies, land values would stabilize towards a true value.

To help beginning farmers and ranchers, I would work towards establishing some sort of nation-wide "clearinghouse" that would help landowners find farmers/ranchers to rent their land, and help beginning farmers/ranchers find land.

I get the feeling that the Agriculture Department is usually focused on the consumers of agricultural products (food stamp recipients, ethanol producers, food processors, etc.), I would focus on the actual producers (or at least devote the majority of my effort).

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