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Field of Candidates for USDA Posts Becoming Clearer

The White House has settled on Steve Censky (shown right), a top foreign trade official at the USDA before becoming a farm group executive, for the No. 2 job at the department, according to published reports. Also reported is that the No. 3 job will go to Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary. A White House spokeswoman declined to discuss policy-maker appointments for the department.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who got a historically late start on his job, said during a trip to Iowa early this month that he expected action soon on a team of USDA leaders. “We’ve identified some great people. … We’ve got to get these people through the [clearance] process.” At present, Perdue is the only USDA official who has been confirmed by the Senate during the Trump administration. The department has a deputy secretary, seven undersecretaries, and a handful of other posts that require Senate approval.

Perdue has put agricultural trade at the top of his agenda, and Censky would reflect that interest if nominated for the deputy secretary post. He was acting administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service among trade posts at the USDA before becoming chief executive of the American Soybean Association in 1996. Half of the U.S. soybean crop is exported annually. “ASA has contributed to that success story,” Censky said in a 2012 profile story in Corn and Soybean Digest.

Censky was reported to be in line for the deputy post by The Hagstrom Report, DTN, and Politico, with Politico saying an announcement could come as soon as today, when Perdue is to testify before the House Agriculture Committee. The news outlets also listed Northey as the likely nominee for undersecretary for farm production and conservation, and Indiana state agriculture director Ted McKinney for undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural services. All three are familiar names in agricultural circles and have been rumored for months to be in the running for high-level USDA posts. They could expect a warm welcome from farm groups.

Trump adviser Sam Clovis, who’s been at the USDA since the first day of the Trump administration as leader of the president’s beachhead team, is in line for undersecretary for research, education, and economics, according to ProPublica and other news outlets. The 2008 farm law says the undersecretary, who also serves as the USDA’s chief scientist, is to be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience” in the disciplines. “But Sam Clovis … appears to have no such credentials,” said ProPublica. “Clovis has never taken a graduate course in science and is openly skeptical of climate change.”

There was loud opposition to the possible appointment. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists tweeted, “@USDA chief scientist should be someone who understands science. Farmer & food system wellbeing are in the balance.” The Hagstrom Report cited a rumor within the USDA that the White House might name Clovis as undersecretary and designate someone else as chief scientist but noted there that could be statutory barriers to such a move.

Just as Perdue was three months late in starting his tenure, President Trump “trails his predecessors on selections made through May of the first year of their presidencies,” said Roll Call. Trump has submitted 464 nominations to the Senate for confirmation, all but 93 of them in the foreign service. Only 32 were confirmed from January to May, compared with an average of 654 for first-year presidents since 1981, said Roll Call.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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