It appears that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack will be our next Secretary of Agriculture. By all accounts, the choice is as carefully considered, intelligent, and unimaginative as President Barack Obama’s other cabinet appointments. When naming him Obama said, “As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.” The food community has responded with thunderous, “meh.” – “big f-ing deal.”
Personally I think our new president is doing fine in his cabinet choices. I think they reflect his awareness of his own lack of experience at the national level and the need to put together a team that knows the ins and outs of the beltway. I don’t think he’ll be anyone’s bitch (unlike his predecessor) and while he will listen to counsel he won’t be ruled by it.
Still, Vilsack isn’t a tremendously exciting choice. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition back on December 18, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) said, “I was very disappointed in that news conference not to hear Vilsack use the word ‘food’ – or ‘eaters.’ And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land.”
Nevertheless, Vilsack, like his fellow appointees does seem able to consider issues outside of the mainstream. Not so much the senators who held hearing on his appointment, most of whom made the usual gestures of support for their primary campaign contributors and they interviewed the nominee. That’s fine, it really is the senators’ job to support those they consider their constituents. But Pat Roberts of Kansas really put his foot in the manure by dissing “small family farmers.” In his remarks he claimed:
“That small family farmer is about 5’2”…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.”
Kansas is a major corn producer – meaning Big Ag mega-farms. These industrial food companies make large campaign contributions to senators like Roberts, who received more than $400,000 of the roughly $6 million he raised in this campaign cycle from agribusiness, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog outfit. Small producers can’t afford these sort of contributions and it’s the little guys that need help. And – judging from some of the names being bandied about for other high-level jobs in the Department of Agriculture – small farmers may once again get left out.
For example, Joy Philippi is reportedly being considered for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Philippi spent two years as president of the National Pork Producers Council, an industry lobbying group. During her tenure there she argued strongly against applying pollution regulations to the huge manure ponds produced by industrial pig farms. In fact, she’s pretty much against any limits on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feed Operations). Another name that’s come up in conjunction with the USDA is Dennis Wolfe. Wolfe is a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture where he did his level best to prevent milk producers from informing customers that they weren’t dosing their dairy cows with artificial hormones.
In short, while Vilsack is maybe not so bad, the lower ranks may well be turned over to people closely associated with Big Ag. It’s not all that different from Bush loading up the Energy Department with coal executives.
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