President-elect Barack Obama’s announcement of his nominees for agriculture and interior secretaries drew a quick and mostly positive response from members of the agricultural, conservation and environmental communities.
Groups that are sometimes on different sides of the political equation – such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund – praised the selection of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for agriculture secretary and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar at interior. And while Vilsack will be the third in a series of Midwesterners to hold the top position at USDA, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of a key subcommittee of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and other Southerners voiced their approval of the president-elect’s choices.
“Governor Vilsack has a distinguished record of public service and a compelling personal life story that would enable him to be both a unifying force and a powerful advocate for American farm families, something our nation desperately needs right now,” said Lincoln, chairman of the Subcommittee on Production, Income Protection and Price Support.
(Vilsack was placed in a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh at birth and raised by adoptive parents. Although his father suffered several financial reversals, Vilsack was able to complete college and obtain a law degree.)
Lincoln, a member of a seventh-generation Arkansas farm family, noted farmers are experiencing record high production costs and a sharp drop in market prices while being on the receiving end of unfair attacks from “opponents eager to tear down a safety net.
“I am hopeful the next secretary works to unite a grateful nation behind the hardworking farm and ranch families that make it all possible,” she said.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Tom Harkin of Iowa, acknowledged he had been lobbying for Vilsack’s nomination since before the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“As someone who has been a supporter of Tom Vilsack from the time he ran for governor to the time he ran for president, I believe he will be a strong secretary of agriculture, and I expect a swift confirmation by the Senate Agriculture Committee,” said Harkin, who had complained a few days before the announcement that the Obama transition team was not paying heed to his recommendations.
The Vilsack nomination drew support from the other side of Capitol Hill and the Iowa-Minnesota border in a statement issued by Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“Governor Vilsack is a strong advocate who understands the changing landscape of our nation's rural economy,” said Peterson, who has been calling for a reorganization of USDA. “I look forward to working with him and President-elect Obama in advancing food, conservation and energy policies that are in the best interest of American agriculture and the American people.”
Bob Stallman, a farmer from Texas and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm group, was another Southerner supporting the Vilsack and Salazar nominations.
“During his tenure as Iowa’s governor, one of the nation’s top agriculture-producing states, Gov. Vilsack was an ardent supporter of furthering the use of renewable fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and wind, as well as an advocate for biotechnology,” said Stallman, adding that Vilsack has been a strong proponent of international trade and expanding export markets.
Other farm organizations praised the nominations of Vilsack and Salazar, whose family members operate a cattle and seed potato operation in Colorado. According to his brother, Rep. John Salazar’s Web site, Salazar and his six siblings grew up in a house with no electricity or running water.
National Corn Growers Chairman Ron Litterer, a corn and hog farmer from Greene, Iowa, noted that Vilsack had chaired the Governors Ethanol Coalition, Governors Biotechnology Partnership, and the National Governors Association’s Natural Resources Committee, which handles agriculture and energy policies.
“Throughout the past several months, NCGA has worked closely with the Obama transition team on issues important to growers,” said Litterer. “NCGA will continue to build on those relationships with Tom Vilsack and his staff.”
“Governor Vilsack has shown a strong track record of supporting production agriculture and alternative energy policy, said Toby Bostwick, chairman of the board of the National Sorghum Producers. “His commitment to rural development will also be positive for U.S. sorghum growers.”
Conservation groups also weighed in with press releases praising the selection of Vilsack and Salazar. “Governor Vilsack is a wise choice to lead USDA at a challenging, yet very exciting time in agriculture,” says Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust.
“The United States and the world are faced with the pressing issue of climate change and a host of other environmental issues in which American agriculture must play a critical role as problem solver,” said Scholl. “Gov. Vilsack’s skills will be put to the test in trying to implement the farm bill amidst a global economic crisis that affects every corner of our nation, and every sector including agriculture.”
Members of the Audubon Society said Salazar and Vilsack were excellent choices for rounding out Obama’s energy and environment team.
“Governor Vilsack will prove an effective leader at the Agriculture Department,” said Audubon President John Flicker. “He has a strong record of working to meet our nation’s need for food and protecting the environment.”
Audubon leaders said Vilsack supports deep reductions in greenhouse gases that they said will be necessary to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. “He also supports development of biofuels that are more ecologically sustainable such as switchgrass and cellulosic ethanol,” officials said.
The Environmental Defense Fund also praised Vilsack’s selection, calling him a “solid choice” to be the next agriculture secretary. “Governor Vilsack recognizes farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating climate change,” said Robert Bonnie, the EDF’s vice president of land, water and wildlife. “He is a strong supporter of a cap and trade program for greenhouse gases, carbon offsets and other measures to help stop global warming.”
“He has a long history of supporting voluntary conservation programs focused on working agricultural lands, and he has advocated for sensible farm policy reforms.” added Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director for EDF. “He understands the importance of cooperating with private landowners to ensure that we address our most pressing environmental challenges.”
The Center for Rural Affairs, an organization that has been critical of current farm stabilization and conservation programs, seemed pleased with the president-elect’s selections.
Chuck Hassebrook, the center’s executive director who had reportedly nominated himself to be secretary of agriculture, said he thought Vilsack would be a good choice to implement the vision put forth by Obama during the presidential campaign.
“President-elect Obama ran on an aggressive platform of change in farm and rural policy, and Governor Vilsack’s most important job will be implementing that vision,” he said. “We will continue to work with Vilsack to keep rural entrepreneurship, agricultural conservation, and family farming and ranching at the forefront of crucial, upcoming debates.”
One of the few negative comments about Vilsack came from the Organic Consumers Association, which said through a spokesman that Vilsack’s selection had sent a “chill” through the sustainable food and farming community.
“Vilsack's nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama administration," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the association.
During the Bush administration, Cummins said, USDA failed to promote a sustainable vision for food and farming and did not protect consumers from the chemical-intensive toxic practices inherent to industrial agriculture.
Vilsack is a past recipient of the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Governor of the Year Award for his support of the industry’s economic growth and ag biotech research.
“Having lived and governed in America’s heartland, Vilsack is a staunch supporter of our nations’ farmers and ranchers, and of the many companies and organizations who work in partnership with them,” said Jim Greenwood, BIO’s president and CEO.
The current agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, also commended Vilsack’s selection, citing the former governor’s experience in agricultural issues and expressing confidence in Vilsack’s ability to effectively continue USDA’s success in expanding America's agricultural economy.