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Farm Groups Praise Choice Of Centrist Vilsack

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was praised as a leader who has experience in governance and balancing competing interests.
Scott Olson
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Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was praised as a leader who has experience in governance and balancing competing interests.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who President-elect Barack Obama has tapped to lead the Agriculture Department, is the latest former rival to be nominated to Obama's Cabinet.

Vilsack, 58, once sought the presidency himself and then supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Obama announced his selection of Vilsack on Wednesday, along with his choice for interior secretary, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar. Both are considered moderate Democrats.

A Centrist Approach

If confirmed, Vilsack will inherit an agency with broad and sometimes competing mandates, including management of national forests, food safety, school lunch programs, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, biofuels, surplus commodities, rural economic development, biotechnology, agricultural trade, meat inspection, federal nutrition programs, feedlots and megafarms raising cattle and hogs.

Some activists have sought to change USDA's focus, from mass production of chemically-produced and subsidized food to local markets and farmers producing organic and so-called "healthy" food. Others say the emphasis on agriculture defies the economic reality of rural America, where very few jobs and little family income are dependent on farms and ranches.

But Vilsack's selection doesn't represent a great deal of change, says David Yepsen, a veteran columnist at the Des Moines Register.

"In fact, some of the people on the left out here feel that Tom Vilsack has been too close to production agriculture," Yepsen says. "So, this is not a choice that is going to try to radicalize the Department of Agriculture. It's very much a centrist approach."

Yepsen cites Vilsack's support for construction of large hog farms when he was in the state Senate in Iowa. As a candidate for governor, Yepsen says, Vilsack was endorsed by the American Farm Bureau, a group that represents agribusiness interests.

That seems to contrast with the tone of the news conference Wednesday in which Vilsack was introduced as the agriculture nominee and Salazar was named to head the Interior Department.

President-elect Obama said both appointments mean "... ensuring that the policies being shaped at the departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence peddlers, but family farmers and the American people."

Vilsack himself spoke in populist tones.

"I know these people," Vilsack said. "America's farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us every day. I hope to be that secretary."

Balancing Competing Interests

In fact, Vilsack gets high marks from some groups focused on small and family farms.

"This is a choice that represents change," says Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based advocacy group for small and family farmers and the rural communities they inhabit. "When Tom Vilsack was governor of Iowa, he was consistently making statements that supported ... federal policy changes to do less to subsidize big farms and do more to support conservation. And ... he invested in rural development."

Hassebrook believes Vilsack will tackle one of Obama's key campaign promises for rural voters and family farmers: trimming subsidies to large and corporate farmers.

Still, advocates for farmers big and small say they welcome Vilsack's appointment, as well.

"We view it as a real positive," says Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau. "One of our criteria (for this post) was that the individual have experience in governance and balancing competing interests, and Gov. Vilsack has obviously had both."

Stallman also feels comfortable with Vilsack because he comes from Iowa, "a state that is so heavily involved in agriculture."

In Iowa, Vilsack championed subsidies for the production of ethanol, a corn-based fuel. He's encouraged development of other biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from wood, cultivated grasses and inedible portions of plants. Vilsack even worked at an Iowa State University institute focused on genetically modified plants and animals.

The focus on biofuels and biotechnology generated opposition to Vilsack's appointment when his name was first mentioned in November.

Vilsack's selection "is not change we can believe in," says Ronnie Cummins, of the Organic Consumers Association. His petition drive collected more than 20,000 signatures opposing Vilsack's nomination.

"Obama's choice for secretary of agriculture points to the continuation of agribusiness as usual, (and) the failed policies of chemical and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture," Cummins adds.

Reward For An Iowa Victory

Politically, Vilsack was belatedly aligned with Obama. The former governor staged his own brief campaign for president, dropping out long before the Iowa caucuses. He then turned his vigorous support to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. His selection now brings yet another former rival into the president-elect's top tier.

"Barack Obama got a big break in the Iowa caucuses even though Tom Vilsack was working for Hillary Clinton," notes Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. "Barack Obama owes a lot to Iowa because of that caucus victory. And I think that some of this appointment is simply a plum, a reward to Iowa for that important victory."

Yepsen also suggests some simpatico between Obama and Vilsack. Both had troubled childhoods.

"Tom Vilsack was an orphan and was an adopted child," Yepsen recalls. "He did not have a particularly easy childhood. His mother suffered from alcoholism. And I really think that shaped his life."

Tragedy also pushed Vilsack into politics. He was a small-town Iowa lawyer 20 years ago when an angry and armed man disrupted a city council meeting and shot and killed the mayor. Vilsack was the mayor's appointed replacement. His entry into state politics came as an Iowa volunteer for a presidential candidate named Joseph Biden. Then came the state Senate and two terms as Iowa governor.

Yepsen adds that Vilsack's nomination as agriculture secretary could yield political benefits for the president-elect if Obama runs for re-election in four years.

"It will help Barack Obama build a firewall for the 2012 campaign against any other Democratic challenger coming at him from the left," Yepsen says. "The left is already unhappy. Putting Tom Vilsack in that position really gives Barack Obama a bit of a firewall here in an important caucus state."

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.