Policy Journal

January 10, 2009 12:02 PM

Former two-term Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D) was named to take the top post at USDA. Serving from 1999 to 2007, Vilsack was known for his support of biotechnology and biofuels such as ethanol.

"As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat but the energy that we use,” said President-elect
Barack Obama at the announcement made in Chicago. "Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oilfields abroad but in our farm fields here at home.”

Obama pledged that USDA under Vilsack would be looking out for small and large farms alike. For his part, Vilsack said USDA's focus must be to "aggressively promote policies and programs that support sustainable practices to conserve and preserve our precious natural resources: our land, our water and our forests.”

Collaborative approach. Taking a page from the recommendations of former USDA chiefs offered during the "A Conversation with the Secretaries” event (see page 12), Vilsack noted USDA needs to "work in concert with other federal departments, state and local governments and the private sector to promote American leadership in response to global climate change. And it must place nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs. It must be innovative and creative during a time of economic anxiety and limited resources.”

Iowa's U.S. senators both hailed the appointment of the first Iowan to serve in the top USDA role since Henry A. Wallace 68 years ago.

"Tom Vilsack has a strong record in Iowa on building opportunities in renewable energy, conservation, food and nutrition, experience that will serve him well as Secretary of Agriculture,” said Senate Ag Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin's panel will hold confirmation hearings on Vilsack in January, and a swift confirmation is predicted.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also praised the move. "As governor of Iowa, he has had a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy,” Grassley said. "I'm happy for him, happy for Iowa and this is welcome news for agriculture.”

Most ag groups heaped praise on the choice. While Vilsack's ag roots aren't as strong as some of the other candidates in what eventually became a crowded field, his time as chief executive of a state will serve him well as he heads up the sprawling bureaucracy at USDA. While many are focusing on his biotechnology and biofuels backing, perhaps his biggest challenge will come when Congress and the administration decide to address soaring budget deficits. That will test Vilsack's ability to sell what will be difficult choices on spending cuts to the ag community. 

Policy Briefs

Sign-up for the 2009 Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program (DCP) runs through June 1, 2009.

Sign-up for the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program run through Sept. 30, 2012.

Payment limit, adjusted gross income (AGI) and direct attribution changes are in the works and should be available shortly. This is key since no payout of advance direct payments can come until those certifications are complete.

USDA will use prices from 2007 and 2008 to set the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) revenue guarantee, but sign-up won't come until spring.

Rep. Frank Lucas (Okla.) will now be the ranking Republican on the House Ag Committee.

The Senate Ag Committee ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), retained his seat in a very heated Dec. 2 runoff election.

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