Until very recently, speculation around who would take the top spot at Obama’s USDA centered on former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a champion of both genetically modified seed technology and farm-subsidy reform.
What now? According to The Hill, two serious candidates remain, both farm-state legislators: Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Ag committee, and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.).
Peterson is widely reviled in sustainable-ag circles for his staunch defense of the federal farm subsidy program during the 2007-’08 farm bill debate. As he revealed in this comment to the Financial Times last year, Peterson sees little value in alternatives to chemical-intensive, monocrop ag:
For whatever reason, people are willing to pay two or three times as much for something that says “organic” or “local.” Far be it from me to understand what that’s about, but that’s reality. And if people are dumb enough to pay that much then hallelujah.
In industrial-ag circles, Peterson has inspired considerably more admiration. Peterson harvested more in donations from agribiz interests than any other House member in 2008 by a substantial margin, Open Secrets reports. He reaped $300,000 from the "Crop Production & Basic Processing" and "Agricultural Services/Products" industries; the "dairy," "food processing," and "livestock" industries came through with $100,000 more.) In addition, agribusiness PACs ponied up $380,000.
It’s hard to imagine a more old-boy, status-quo pick than Peterson. Would Obama really do this to us?
That raises the question of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. What kind of USDA chair would she make? She’s young (born 1970), and she grew up on a farm in South Dakota. She serves on the ag committee under Peterson. She’s no Peterson when it comes to reeling in agribiz cash, but she does get some.
She (like Peterson) is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative democrats, and in fact was recently elected one of the group’s three main leaders in the new Congress. Like many Blue Dogs, her passion for "fiscal conservatism" washes away on contact with ethanol, which she thinks deserves boat loads of taxpayer cash.
On the other hand, people in ag-policy circles tell me she supported a much stronger competition title than what made it into the 2008 farm bill; and she also supported stricter limits on the size of subsidy payments. Peterson fought both of those principles tooth and nail during 2008 farm bill negotiations.
What to make of it? It sure would be nice if Obama picked someone not under the heel of Big Corn as USDA chief — someone with a holistic view of the U.S. food system, someone who doesn’t behave as though the world exists to sop up industrially produced corn and soy.
I realize, as Steph Larsen has pointed out, that the deadening hand of realpolitik lies heavily on the process of picking the next USDA chief. Yet our food policy needs a Gorbachev — and millions of folks expect Obama to deliver one. Of the two names being floated, one offers some promise, while the other looks like a a hardened apparatchik, a worthy heir to the one-time throne of Earl "Rusty" Butz.