When you look at Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's biographical information, your first thought is “another policy wonk.”
Veneman, an attorney, has spent much of her career working on farm policy and trade issues with government agencies like USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
But, five minutes into a conversation with the secretary, you realize that this is a lady who cares about farmers, and, while she may have different ideas about how to do it, wants to help them pull out of the deep economic crisis too many find themselves in.
Shortly after she boarded the airplane taking her from Cleveland, Miss., to her next appearance in Stuttgart, Ark., Veneman wanted to know how her speech at the 66th annual meeting of the Delta Council in Cleveland had gone over with the audience of 1,500, many of them producers.
“I know farmers are looking for help because of the economic problems, and this administration is looking at providing more assistance,” she said. “But, there are other areas where we can help farmers become more competitive and help them return to profitability.”
While the secretary remains an unknown quantity across much of the farm belt, she earned a reputation as someone who would work closely with and fight for farmers during her tenure as California Secretary of Agriculture.
“But, there are other areas where we can help farmers become more competitive and help them return to profitability.”
When questions were raised about bacterial infections on strawberries destined for the school lunch program in 1998, she had several cartons of strawberries brought into a press conference and proceeded to eat them while answering questions from the news media.
“This was in Sacramento where the news media is very liberal,” said an observer. “It wasn't in Fresno or Bakersfield, which are agricultural areas. So, she really went into the lion's den for growers.”
She has also worked with California farmers on new programs like the Ag2020 project, an industry/government partnership that she referred to in her speech to the Delta Council in Cleveland. She noted that Kenneth Hood, last year's Delta Council president, was also a participant in the project.
In California, Ted Sheely, a 1999 Cotton Foundation High Cotton award winner from Lemoore and an Ag2020 participant, has helped test such new technologies as a Global Positioning System guidance mechanism for tractors.
“We saw some truly amazing things with this system in California,” said Veneman. “Ted Sheely had a field that had typically taken 36 hours to plow. With the new guidance system, he was able to reduce that to 22 hours. Those 30 percent increases in efficiency can make a difference over the long term.”
Veneman was raised on a peach farm in California's Stanislaus County, which is the seventh largest agricultural producing county in the nation. She didn't spend much time working on the farm — her father became a member of the California Legislature while she was a teenager.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in political science and public policy, she received a law degree from the University of California Hastings School of Law.
In 1986, she came to Washington to work for the Foreign Agricultural Service as a protégé of then-Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng, who came from the same hometown, Modesto, Calif.
She rose to the rank of associate administrator at FAS, and, in 1989, was named deputy undersecretary of agriculture for international affairs and commodity programs when the first President Bush took office. In 1991, she became deputy secretary of agriculture.
You might think it would create strange feelings to come back to USDA after leaving involuntarily during the change in administrations eight years ago.
“Really, things have been happening so fast that I haven't had much time to think about it,” the secretary said. “It's almost like we've been in a fog, responding to one crisis after another since January 20.”
(Among those: The outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in livestock in Europe, the Starlink transgenic corn controversy, new mandatory price reporting requirements for livestock sales, rising energy costs and falling prices for most of the major row crop commodities.)
Although she was frequently mentioned as a candidate for secretary after the Bush election was a certainty, Veneman said she didn't expect to receive the call to come to Washington to interview for the position on Dec. 17.
“After I met with the president at the White House on a Monday and told him I would take the job, he said ‘Good. I need you to be in Austin on Wednesday for a two-day meeting. I had only brought two outfits, but I managed to work through that.”
She went home to California over the Christmas holidays, made arrangements to sell her house and returned to Washington to begin the process of FBI background investigations, meetings with the transition team and preparation for her Senate confirmation hearings the week before the inauguration.
She returned briefly to California to oversee the packing of her belongings, came back to Washington to be sworn in the day of the inauguration and hasn't been back to California since.
“I didn't sell my house when I left Washington to take the job with CDFA in 1995 because the real estate market had taken a downturn,” she said. “When I found out I was coming back to Washington, I told my renter to make other arrangements, and I moved back in.
“So, I'm in the same house and in the same suite of offices that I occupied in the last Bush administration, and it's almost like nothing's changed.”
During her speech to the Delta Council, Veneman referred to the fact that she had been “home alone” through much of the first four months in office because of the slow pace of filling her sub-cabinet level political appointments.
“That won't be the case now because of the confirmation of five of our appointments by the Senate Monday night,” she noted, as she asked former state senator and producer Bill Hawks to come to the podium and be sworn in as undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs.
“I had originally intended it to be a surprise for Bill,” she said later. “But, I had to tell him because at one point it looked like I might swear in all of the new appointees in my office before we left to come to the Mid-South.”
She said she has already been impressed with Hawks' agricultural experience and willingness to tackle problems and the similar abilities of another Mississippi-related product, Hunt Shipman, who has been “on loan” from Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran's staff.
“I'm grateful to have the talents and expertise of Bill Hawks and Hunt Shipman at USDA,” she said, adding that she was glad that Shipman, a native of Dyersburg, Tenn., had agreed to remain at USDA as deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural programs.
Veneman's actions following her speech in Cleveland indicated some new directions since she drew criticism from Washington ag media for failing to stay and take questions following her first speaking engagement at the USDA Outlook Conference back in February.
The secretary held an impromptu press conference for local media in Cleveland and then signed autographs for children of Delta Council members and members of the Mississippi Boys Choir from Greenville.
“I've never been much on seeking the limelight, but I've realized that many people never have a chance to be around someone at my level,” she said. “So, I have begun to take time to shake more hands and talk to people.”