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UPDATE: White House tabs North Dakotan as next ag secretary

The Bush administration will nominate former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer to replace Mike Johanns as Secretary of Agriculture, a choice that drew bipartisan support from farm state senators Wednesday.

President Bush called Schafer the "right choice to fill this post" in introducing him in a press conference Wednesday. He called upon the successor to Mike Johanns -- who left his post to pursue a vacant U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Nebraska -- to continue the steps USDA took toward signing a farm bill, among other tasks at hand at the agency he'll lead.

"Following Mike is not going to be easy -- but Ed Schafer is up to the challenge. With Ed's leadership, we will work with Congress to pass a farm bill that provides farmers with a safety net, protects our lands and the environment and spends federal tax dollars wisely," Bush said Wednesday. "Ed will also join other members of my administration to continue leveling the playing field for America's farm products by concluding the Doha Round of trade negotiations. And he and I will continue to work hard to open up new markets for American beef."

Schafer said he's "humbled" by the nomination and added he'll call on his ag roots in North Dakota to help guide his work.

"Growing up in that arena, and focusing now on USDA, I realize that the mission of this agency goes far beyond the services delivered to the preservation of a way of life that I believe is the foundation of this country," Schafer said.

Support for Schafer's nomination seemed strong among farm-state and agricultural leaders in Congress following the Wednesday announcement.

"He's extremely capable -- understands the rural economy. Understands agriculture," Senator John Thune (R-SD) said during a press conference Wednesday.

Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) issued statements of support, and Conrad added pitch for Bush administration support for a farm bill that has drawn a mixed response from Acting Agriculture Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner.

"I just congratulated Governor Schafer and said I welcomed his nomination as a fellow North Dakotan. I hope he will support this farm bill, which is good for our state and the nation. I look forward to speaking with him about his views on the Food and Energy Security Act currently under consideration," Conrad said.

"He has a strong background in public service, which will certainly be a valuable asset in his new role as Secretary," Chambliss said. "I look forward to getting to know Governor Schafer during the confirmation process and will work hard to fill this critical position for U.S. agriculture as soon as possible."

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin said Wednesday he's equally pleased with the Schafer appointment, and added high marks for Conner's performance in the interim period.

"I congratulate former Governor Schafer on his nomination for Secretary of Agriculture. I look forward to working with him and to learning his views on the new farm bill that we have just reported out of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with overwhelming support," Harkin said in a statement issued Wednesday. "I also want to thank and commend Chuck Conner for the fine job he has done as Acting Secretary."

Looking ahead, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota said she's hopeful of progress on a few specific issues that will await Schafer once he is confirmed.

"I hope that he will recognize appropriately the widespread support from producers in our part of the country for issues like mandatory country-of-origin labeling, investment in renewable energy research and development, and a strong commitment to important conservation programs," she said Wednesday.

Early indications are that the Schafer nomination will resonate well within leaders of ag industry groups. The former North Dakota governor has worked well with his state's Farmers Union, say leaders of the National Farmers Union (NFU), and they hope that cooperation extends to the federal level once Schafer takes office.

"As governor, Ed Schafer and our organization worked on several state and federal issues that were important to North Dakota agriculture," said North Dakota Farmers Union president Robert Carlson. "We appreciated his tenacity in standing up for farmers and ranchers. He was steadfast in his convictions, regardless of political consequences."

On Wednesday, NFU president Tom Buis added: "The North Dakota Farmers Union, the largest farm organization in the state, has enjoyed a strong working relationship with Governor Schafer and we at the National Farmers Union look forward to the same in his new role."

Specific to issues affecting cattle producers, Schafer should be a strong advocate for the industry. National Cattlemen's Beef Association vice president of government affairs Jay Truitt called today a "critical time for U.S. agriculture," but said Schafer's skills in the industry should serve him well in his new post.

"Schafer has always embraced proposals which lower taxes, promote entrepreneurship, limit government interference and rely on a market-based system. Schafer also has been a steadfast supporter of grassroots involvement. He is experienced in dealing with issues such as disaster assistance, international trade and renewable energy policy -- all issues at the forefront of today's political environment," Truitt said Wednesday.

"He will bring a fresh perspective to USDA at a time when American agriculture is facing many new challenges in policy development and opportunities in innovation and technology."

Pending his confirmation, Schafer will become the nation's 29th secretary of agriculture.

The Bush administration will nominate former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer to replace Mike Johanns as Secretary of Agriculture, a choice that drew bipartisan support from farm state senators Wednesday.

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