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Get to know your new Secretary of Agriculture

Agriculture.com Staff 09/21/2007 @ 11:57am

Each year, Chuck Conner returns to his family's Benton County, Indiana, farm to help out with fall harvest. But this fall, the 49-year-old will be busy not in the cab of a combine, but in his new office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Conner, 49, was tabbed as acting Secretary of Agriculture this week when Mike Johanns resigned the post to pursue the Senate seat in his home state of Nebraska to be vacated by Chuck Hagel next year. He takes the reins at USDA immediately, in an all-important time when the deadline looms for finalizing the 2007 farm bill.

Previously, Conner has served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture since May 2005. Before that, he served on the President's National Economic Council, focusing on farm bill issues, from 2001 to 2005 after serving as president of the Corn Refiners Association from 1997 to 2001. Conner's policy career started out in 1980 as an agricultural aide for Indiana Senator Richard Luger, in whose office he held a number of positions until 1997.

While some federal ag leaders have called into question the timing of Johanns' resignation in terms of how it might affect farm bill talks, lawmakers involved in the process say Conner is well-equipped and experienced to continue the process.

"Of course our vital work on the farm bill must go forward. Chuck Conner is a good choice to serve as acting Secretary," Iowa Senator and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said of Conner's appointment this week. "I have known him for over 20 years and believe his involvement in this farm bill process will make for a smooth transition."

Even some of those who have disagreed with Conner's work in the Bush administration in the past say they're looking forward to working with the 1980 Purdue University graduate.

"I have had a long, positive working relationship with Chuck Conner. He is very knowledgeable. He knows farm policy and is someone who will be respected in the negotiations on the farm bill," Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), also a member of the Senate Ag Committee, said this week. "That's not to say I have always agreed with him. But I do respect him. He is a good man."

Switching congressional chambers, at least one member of the House Agriculture Committee -- which has already completed its mark-up on the '07 farm bill -- says the move from Johanns to Conner shouldn't cause a lapse in the progress toward finalizing the legislation.

"I do not foresee any complications caused by the transition at USDA, but continue to be concerned by the inaction of the U.S. Senate on the 2007 farm bill," Kansas Congressman and House Ag Committee member Jerry Moran said this week.

Outside of Congress, ag organizations seem equally pleased with the Johanns successor from Indiana. Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, this week praised his appointment to ag secretary.

"Acting Secretary Chuck Conner has a wealth of experience and understanding of the intricacies of farm policy," Buis said. "He has been an active participant in crafting farm legislation in the past and I look forward to working with him in the future."

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