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Obama team moves ahead on ag issues

President-elect Barack Obama hasn't yet announced his pick for Secretary of Agriculture, but already his transition team is working on briefing papers for that person.

On Monday of this week, the transition team in Washington heard from a cross section of groups interested in conservation, rural development and commodity policies, according to several who participated.

Anyone looking for hints of direction would have been hard pressed. The transition team leaders spent most of their time listening. And the groups represented don't agree on all issues.

Some 40 groups participated in the session on commodity programs, says Katy Ziegler Thomas, vice president for government relations at National Farmers Union. Besides NFU, the session included the American Farm Bureau Federation, commodity groups representing corn, wheat, soybeans and pork. Sometime rivals, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and R-CALF USA, were there.

"The message I gave them is the message we give to everybody, starting out with the farm economy," Ziegler Thomas said. She outlined a worsening situation for farmers that includes falling commodity prices, still high input costs and tightening credit.

Implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill "was the most common thread" among all of the groups, she added. USDA has already missed some deadlines for putting programs into effect and new programs like ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) don't have rules yet. On the other hand, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) rules are rumored to be in the final form, ready for release around the Christmas holiday, even though a six-month education process on the program isn't completed.

Also, Farmers Union is concerned about decreasing competition among agricultural businesses and lack of coordination between USDA and the Justice Department on enforcing antitrust laws.

"We're hopeful that the new administration well begin that enforcement process," she said.

Other groups want the Obama Administration to remember agriculture and rural America in its economic recovery plans.

"Rural America needs to be a part of that, in particular family farms and rural small businesses," said Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska.

The Center wants to see Obama's USDA press for more funding from Congress for relatively small farm bill programs such as value added producer grants and assistance for rural microenterprises. It also favors a 20% tax credit, up to $10,000, for rural microenterprises and for beginning farmers.

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was one of eight people asked to present ideas at a session on conservation.

Hoefner warned that unless funds for food assistance for women, infants and children (the WIC program) are included in the next economic stimulus package, the new administration could be forced to spend less on conservation and rural development.

Some USDA programs such as commodity payments and food stamps are entitlements and get funded no matter what the budget is. But the WIC program competes with other ag-related programs in each year's annual appropriations process in Congress. With rising unemployment and poverty, WIC will cost more than $7 billion this year. The entire agricultural appropriations bill will be around $20 billion, Hoefner said.

"If we were smart, we would put WIC in the stimulus package where it belongs," Hoefner told Agriculture Online.

At a press conference Thursday, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he expects Congress to do exactly that. The stimulus bill is likely to be passed in January before Obama takes office, Harkin said. The Bush administration has asked for about $6 billion for WIC, so Congress will need to add only a little more than $1 billion to meet the program's needs. That's a small part of a package that could cost $500 billion to $700 billion or more, Harkin said.

When asked if he has heard from the transition team on this, Harkin said, "No, all I heard is that Obama wants to sign it in a hurry."

In fact, Harkin said he has heard only once from Obama directly since he was elected president and that the two discussed Harkin's interest in conservation and other issues.

Harkin said he hasn't been consulted by the transition team on who the next ag secretary should be, even though his committee will have to confirm Obama's choice.

At least two other Senate committee chairmen who will have to lead confirmation of other cabinet choices haven't heard from Obama, either, he said.

"I think this is going to get Obama off to a bad start with the Senate," he said.

Harkin did say he contacted the team himself to suggest former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as a potential ag secretary. "They say, thank you very much, and you never hear back," he said.

So far, though, Harkin likes Obama's choices for his cabinet.
"Quite frankly, I think all of his appointments have been pretty darned good," he said.

President-elect Barack Obama hasn't yet announced his pick for Secretary of Agriculture, but already his transition team is working on briefing papers for that person.

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