It's still too early to tell how a Barack Obama USDA will stack up for U.S. cattlemen, but the first reports offer some positive and some concerning inklings, experts say.
Led by newly confirmed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, a two-term former governor of Iowa, it appears USDA will ring more populist and “green.” In his first news conference a week after taking office, Vilsack listed these points among the priorities for his tenure:
USDA will promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables as part of the Obama administration's health-care solution and its goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015.
Limitation of farm payments to producers “who really need the payments and to ensure that payments aren't being provided to ineligible parties.”
USDA will be a national leader in climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts, with expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy, and support for research and development of additional biofuels, wind power and other renewable energy sources.
Support for independent producers, local and organic agriculture, and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
“We want USDA to be a supporter of 21st century rural communities. We'll be looking at promoting the expansion of modern infrastructure, expanded broadband opportunities, affordable, energy-efficient housing in rural communities, expanded small business opportunities, and improving the quality of life through community facilities,” he said.
The cattle take
At the recent Annual Cattle Industry Convention in Phoenix, a panel of experts provided their early take on the incoming administration's agricultural package.
Burton Eller, chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and a denizen of the halls of Washington since the Carter administration, prefaced the remarks of former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) and Sara Wyant, Agri-Pulse Communications (www.agri-pulse.com), by saying:
“I'm amazed at some of the agendas that I see recycled from 16 years ago. They're coming back in a little different form and they might be coming back from a different person or group but there's not that much difference in the agendas I saw floated 16 years ago.”
Stenholm, who served 26 years in Congress, says he's impressed with Vilsack's potential. “We sat down for 1½ hours and I think he has the makings of a good hand. He'll be the first to tell you he doesn't know a heck of a lot about all the issues, but he's educatable. And that's all I ask of anyone — to listen to us, to listen to the issues as we see it, and we'll listen to the way you see it, and then our job is to try to put together a winning coalition to try to get it done.”
Meanwhile, Wyant characterized many of Obama's cabinet picks as bipartisan and centrist. “He's moved very much to the center on a lot of his early selections. So you'll see a very good opportunity for agriculture and rural America when they have Cabinet meetings.”
As examples, she points to the appointments of Vilsack, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) for Interior Secretary, and Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL) for Transportation Secretary.
“I think we'll be well served in the Obama administration in terms of people who understand or know others who understand agriculture and rural America,” Wyant says.
But other appointments leave her nervous, she adds. Among them is Carol Browner, former EPA chief in the Clinton administration, tapped as Obama's energy and environment regulatory czar.
“My understanding is she is supposed to be coordinating decisions, appointments and everything that goes on in USDA, EPA and Interior. How does that work? Does she report directly to Obama, or does Vilsack report to her? There are a lot of questions about who is making the decisions and what the decision train is that raises red flags.”
During the campaign, Wyant said Obama pushed a six-point plan for agriculture and rural communities. Those included:
A strong safety net for family farmers, plus a pledge to limit commodity-program payments to $250,000 or less.
Preventing anti-competitive behavior which most define as delivering on anti-trust pledges.
More regulation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Small business development to encourage entrepreneurial action in rural America.
While most of those six points don't give most folks reason to pause, how they're addressed could prove problematic, she says. “It's what we don't know that gives more people a lot of late-night worries.”
As an example, she points to an interview that candidate Obama gave the New York Times in which he cited the agricultural views of Michael Pollan, author and University of California-Berkeley journalism professor.
“I was just reading an article… by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.”
Wyant said the Obama campaign claimed Obama was just reflecting on Pollan's comments; not necessarily espousing them. Wyant isn't totally convinced.
“I don't know which Obama is going to emerge over time and that is going to be a key thing to watch,” Wyant says.