Rather than name a USDA chief, Obama keeps floating trial balloons.

The names range from the deplorable, like Big Ag lobbyist Charles Stenholm, to the relatively innocuous, like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius is a former chair of the Governors Ethanol Council. Predictable, given that she leads a big farm state; inevitable, almost. But still. However, she gets props for saying no to coal-fired power plants. That has little to do with ag, but does show a willingness to take on powerful interests.

On Thursday, The Washington Post published a short list of USDA candidates that included Stenholm and Sebelius, plus Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania’s Monsanto-friendly ag secretary. Other names being bandied are Colorodo Rep. John Salazar and Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop — both conventional ag men through and through.

Meanwhile, a group of sustainable-ag advocates and writers led by David Murphy of Iowa have written a letter [PDF] urging the president-elect to choose from a different short list — this one made up not of Big Ag shills and friendly politicians but rather real reformers. The letter declares:

From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, global warming and air and water pollution, we believe our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a vision that calls for: recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment, biodiversity and the health of our children while implementing policies that place conservation, soil health, animal welfare and worker’s rights as well as sustainable renewable energy near the top of their agenda.

The names floated in the letter are below the fold.

  • Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.
  • Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.
  • Sarah Vogel, former Commissioner of Agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.
  • Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.
  • Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  • Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.