Whither Obama on ag policy? 

In one sense, the answer seems simple. Just go to whitehouse.gov and check out the rural agenda page. It’s no revolutionary document, but there’s some good stuff  there. It calls for more stringent limits on subsidies, stricter regulation on concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), and tighter enforcement of anti-trust and pro-competition rules for the highly consolidated meat industry.

All would be good first steps toward saner food and ag policy — and the latter two would enrage one of our nation’s most politically powerful and environmentally ruinous industries.

Intriguing policy document aside, Obama confused things last month by nominating former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as USDA chief. (Vilsack has since been confirmed by the Senate.) Some critics (including me) fretted about Vilsack’s strong support for ag-biotech and ethanol industries, and were less than impressed by his attempts to stand up to Big Meat as Iowa governor. But Vilsack also had supporters in the sustainable-food world — both well-regarded Iowa activists like Denise O’Brien and Big Organic types like Whole Foods exec Walter Robb.

They argued that Vilsack would listen to the concerns of the sustainable-food world — and, if not challenge the interests of agribusiness, at least acknowledge that other ways of food production exist and deserve support.

So the Vilsack pick doesn’t really clarify where the new president intends to go on food policy. Now we’ve reached another crossroads: the choice of deputy secretary of USDA. According to report in Congress Daily, three names are being floated: Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska; Karen Ross of California Winegrape Growers Association and executive director of the Winegrape Growers of America; and Jim Miller, chief of staff and chief economist at the National Farmers Union.

All three represent a step up from the outgoing deputy secretary, Chuck Conner, who I once deemed Archer Daniels Midland’s Man at USDA. Two of the deputy candidates — Hassebrook and Ross — made the "sustainable dozen" list of desired USDA picks being circulated by Food Democracy Now.

From talking to sustainable-ag polic hands, by far the most inspring of the three is Hassebrook — who has a 30-year history of sticking up for small- and mid-sized farmers in the midwest, and doesn’t equate "rural development" with CAFOs and corn-processing plants.