New U. S. ag secretary chosen

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Tom Vilsack, a former governor of the top corn and soybean-producing state of Iowa, was set to be named next agriculture secretary by U. S. President-elect Barack Obama, Democratic officials said Dec. 16.

Vilsack, a lawyer, will oversee one of the largest federal departments with 100,000 employees and a $95 billion annual budget, the bulk of it spent on nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunches.

If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack, 58, would be the first Iowan to lead the Agriculture Department since Henry Wallace during the Depression era. Wallace, an editor, economist and developer of hybrid corn, had a seminal role in the creation of the U. S. farm support system still in use.

Critics said Vilsack is too much of a supporter of agricultural biotechnology and not enough of a friend to organic or sustainable farmers.

The National Farmers Union said Vilsack was “a great choice” who understands the threat to farmers from U. S. recession and the potential income from renewable energy.

The Agriculture Department also runs the vast national forests, runs a renowned agricultural research network, promotes U. S. farm exports and encourages land stewardship.

As secretary, Vilsack will play a role in determining the future of biofuels and improving food safety.

On his website for the presidential transition, Obama says he would “ensure that our rural areas continue their leadership in the renewable fuels movement.” Cornbased ethanol is the major biofuel now produced. The next generation of fuels is expected to use feedstocks like wood chips and grasses, reducing “food vs. fuel” friction.

Obama also supports strict regulation of pollution from large-scale feedlots, a ban on meatpackers raising livestock in competition with farmers and country-of-origin labels on U. S. food “so that American producers can distinguish their products from imported ones.”

Vilsack, 58, served two terms as Iowa’s governor from 1998 to 2006. His top issues were education funding, renewable fuels, and attracting high-tech agribusiness to the state.

Vilsack was an early candidate in the race to become Democratic nominee for president, but quickly withdrew and co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s campaign before backing Obama.

He was an early consensus front-runner for the USDA job but by late November said he was not under consideration. In the past few days, his name surfaced anew.

Cap on farm subsidies

Obama recently spoke out against payments going to “millionaire farmers” and backs a $250,000 per year “hard” cap on subsidies to replace current, porous limits.

The 2008 farm law included the first-ever bar on farm subsidies to the wealthiest Americans. Regulations to implement the ban and to track farm payments to individuals were under review by the White House budget office on Tuesday.

Vilsack also will oversee the implementation of a new revenue guarantee program for farmers. A major argument is how high a price benchmark will be selected by USDA.

Vilsack will find himself in the middle of the “food vs. fuel” debate over using corn to make ethanol, and the future of renewable fuels. Obama has said he is interested in the “next generation” of biofuels made from nonfood sources.

Ethanol is popular in Vilsack’s home state of Iowa, one of the leading states for ethanol production.

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