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Obama's ag secretary prospects emerging from mainstream

Agriculture.com Staff 12/04/2008 @ 11:46am

There are those in the larger world of agriculture who believe that one of President-elect Barack Obama's most important appointments is secretary of agriculture. Some activists see the choice as one that should echo the change theme sounded by the Obama campaign and would move agriculture in a whole new direction, first tackling issues like subsidies, organics and food safety.

Traditional farm groups are concerned that the new secretary be well acquainted with production agriculture -- and focus first on issues like markets, risk management and energy.

Given the list of candidates for the top U.S. ag job, it appears that the Obama team is looking for experienced people who know how to work in Washington.

The Obama transition team has been vetting at least a dozen candidates for Secretary of Agriculture, according to Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). "And there are more folks trying to get on the list," Doggett says.

A few weeks ago, rumor had it that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was in line for the job, but for whatever reason that idea was quickly squelched.

At this point, "nobody is breaking from the pack," Doggett told Agriculture Online on Wednesday.

On Thursday, though, word in the Washington Post was that three candidates were leading the pack: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Representative Charles Stenholm (D-TX) and Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture and a dairy farmer. Other names still appear to be in the hopper, according to Washington sources, including U.S. Representatives Sanford Bishop (D-GA), who headed Obama's Georgia campaign, and John Salazar (D-CO), a farmer-rancher.

Later in the day, responding to reporters' inquiries, Sebelius indicated she was not interested in the job. Salazar and Bishop may have moved to front-runner status with that development, according to a Washington source.

"The short list for Secretary of Agriculture seems to be changing daily," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said.

NCGA has been talking with the Obama transition team, but is not lobbying on behalf of any particular candidate, Doggett said.

Basically, the corn growers are asking that Obama ensure that the Cabinet position be filled by someone who "understands production agriculture," Doggett said.

Farm Bureau's Stallman said: "Our hope is the individual selected will have experience in governance and balancing competing interests."

Production ag has a number of key concerns, foremost among them being the volatility in the markets, Doggett said. Other top issues are the state of the ethanol and livestock industries and what can be done to improve farmers' risk management tools, he said.

So far, the corn growers feel that Obama's team is "definitely listening" to their concerns. "We have had a lot of opportunity to give input," Doggett said.

John Stierna, farm policy expert for the American Farmland Trust, believes the new secretary of agriculture will want to introduce reforms in USDA, but first will have to focus on the economic crisis in the broader economy.

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