There have been whispers recently from Washington, D.C., that indicate that the wheels of change are grinding to a halt even before the Inauguration of our next President takes place.
The recent nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Ag was a disappointment to many in the sustainable ag and family farm community because of Vilsack’s close relationship with agribusiness and his penchant for promoting biotech and corn-based ethanol. Despite some positive comments during his confirmation hearing regarding nutrition, local foods and climate change, many in the sustainable ag community remain skeptical, while some remain hopeful.
I’ve written previously, as have others, to place Tom’s record in context; that he was the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 40 years and that during his governorship he had to contend with a Republican House and Senate.
This will not be the case when he heads the USDA with solid majorities in Congress, a call for “change in America” and support from the White House. There will be no one to blame for failing to put forward a progressive agenda for America’s food and farm future.
When Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture, he called it the "people’s Department." Lincoln would roll over in his grave if he could see how giant corporations have been bilking the American farmer the way war profiteers did during the Civil War.
Having written a letter to President-Elect Obama asking for a Secretary of Agriculture with a grassroots background in promoting sustainable agriculture I was not surprised when one of our picks was not selected.
I am not naive, I know how politics works and the fact is we could have gotten someone much worse. Our focus now is at the deputy and under secretary level and our current list of twelve candidates we have put forward the Sustainable Dozen, is a serious list of contenders who should all have a job at the USDA.
Two days ago I heard that one of our candidates is being considered for the position of Deputy Secretary and that several opponents of reform had stepped forward to disparage that candidate to those who make the hiring decision.
If anti-change agents think they can undercut Chuck Hassebrook or any of our candidates in backroom conversations without hearing a public response, they’re wrong. More than anybody, Chuck has stood up for independent family farmers for the last three decades. He was especially important during this last farm bill when he called out several politicians who shortchanged family farmers by scuttling payment limitations on subsidy programs.
As is always the case when there is a transition of power, a lot of jowls are scurrying up to the trough to be fed. And many of those making the fastest climb through the slop are the most dangerous ones to our democracy (especially our food democracy), which Obama pointed out during the campaign when he pledged to not have any corporate lobbyists in his administration.
If one looks at Obama’s Rural Agenda they will find that it is a very forward-thinking document, with a list of policy ideas that were designed to benefit independent family famers and rural economies while leveling the playing field that has been so stacked in the favor of agribusiness that it has resulted in record concentration in the livestock, seed, processing and slaughter industries and put hundreds of thousands of family farmers out of business over the past many decades.
If Obama is serious about change, one of the most important areas he is going to have to deal with is how America produces its food. And that change starts at the USDA.
As he admittedly read Michael Pollan’s Letter to the Farmer in Chief, he already knows that the issues facing agriculture today are as great as those facing our dismal economy and if they are not dealt with properly and promptly they have the potential to drag our nation down even further, especially if he follows the advice of some industry "leaders" who have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
If you look closely at Obama’s rural agenda it’s easy to spot the imprint of Chuck Hassebrook on many of those policies. A leader who has stood up for family during some of the most difficult times that farmers have faced in our nation’s history.
In order to make sure that Obama has someone with integrity and reform credentials at the USDA supporting Vilsack in his effort to become a forward-looking leader, we think it’s important that he consider Chuck Hassebrook for a high-level position at the USDA.
Chuck has the backbone to stand up to members of his own party and the sustainable ag community when he thinks they stray too far off the reservation and their positions hurt independent family farmers. If Vilsack is going to lead the USDA forward to a positive future for the 21st century, he’ll need somebody who has a track record for standing up to competing interests and has a good political nose if he wants to navigate the troubled shores of modern agriculture.
During Lincoln’s day nearly 58 percent of Americans were farmers. Today that number has dropped to less than 1 percent. If Obama/Vilsack want to stem to blood loss in rural America they’re going to have to appoint some serious agents of change.
Now that the Inauguration is upon us, it should be more important for our next administration to remember who brought them to the dance and stop dining with their enemies.