President Bush announced he will nominate Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns to be secretary of agriculture. If confirmed by the Senate, Johanns, 54, will succeed outgoing Secretary Ann Veneman.

Johanns, the son of Iowa dairy farmers, is expected to continue the focus on trade issues that was begun by his predecessor. Veneman started her USDA career in the Foreign Agricultural Service, moving up through the ranks to become deputy secretary and then secretary in President George W. Bush's first term.

As governor of Nebraska, Johanns has led trade missions across East Asia to find new markets for his state's manufacturing and farm products.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Nutrition Agriculture and Forestry, applauded the nomination.

“I think Governor Johanns is a good choice for this job. His executive experience as Governor and Mayor will be a valuable asset as well as his first hand knowledge of what it is like to live on a farm,” said Cochran.

“If he is confirmed, I look forward to meeting with Governor Johanns as soon as possible to discuss Arkansas' agricultural needs,” said Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who issued a statement on Johanns' nomination.

“I am hopeful that whoever becomes the new secretary takes a balanced approach to addressing the agricultural issues facing us today. America's farmers are too important to the economic stability and security of this country for us to turn our backs on any of them — regardless of where their farm may be located.”

Congratulations

Farm groups were quick to congratulate Johanns. The American Farm Bureau Federation released a statement by President Bob Stallman, a farmer from Texas.

“As lead governor for agriculture for the Western Governors' Association, Gov. Johanns helped lead the way for the re-authorization of the 2002 farm bill,” he noted. “Presiding over the fourth largest agricultural exporting state, Gov. Johanns recognizes the importance of opening up new export markets for U.S. agricultural products, as reflected in the many agricultural trade missions he led as governor.

“A past chairman of the Governors' Ethanol Committee, Gov. Johanns understands the importance of furthering the use of ethanol as a renewable fuel. His understanding and support of other important agricultural issues — such as acceptance of biotechnology and homeland security measures to protect the nation's food supply — and his experience growing up on a dairy farm, will serve him well in his new position.

National Cotton Council leaders also hailed the Johanns nomination although the Sun Belt once again was passed over in the search for a new secretary.

Trade importance

“Governor Johanns knows the challenges facing U.S. agriculture and is keenly aware of the importance of trade to our nation's food and fiber producers,” said NCC Chairman Woody Anderson, a Texas cotton producer. “Farm and trade policy stand shoulder to shoulder for agriculture's economic stability, particularly cotton.

“His experience in leading trade delegations will be important to production agriculture as those areas intersect in the future.”

Anderson noted that Governor Johanns has a proven record of promoting rural economic development, understands the importance of homeland security and has proven to be a strong leader not afraid to make tough choices.

“The U.S. cotton industry looks forward to working with this well-qualified candidate and strengthening its partnership with the U.S. government, including moving forward on the recently-initiated e-gov initiative,” Anderson said.

Johanns was educated at St. Mary's College in Winona, Minn., and earned a law degree from Creighton University in 1974. Johanns then clerked for Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Hale McCown before joining a law firm.

Prior to being elected Nebraska governor in 1998 (and again in 2002) he served in a variety of state government jobs including a stint as mayor of Lincoln.

Although Veneman appeared to be interested in serving in the second Bush administration, she submitted her resignation on Nov. 12 along with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Education Secretary Rod Paige. Veneman has not announced her future plans.

The Johanns announcement was a surprise to many in Washington who had Deputy Trade Ambassador Allen Johnson and White House Agriculture adviser Charles Connor on the president's short list.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com