As Tom Laskawy pointed out here a few days ago, controversy rages around new USDA chief Tom Vilsack’s choice of deputy secretary — traditionally a powerful figure within the agency, tasked with implementing policy in a sprawling bureaucracy.

The sustainable-ag world is rallying around Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, who’s thought to be under serious consideration for the post.

Evidently, the choice is being held up because Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is threatening to fight it in the ag committee. It’s pretty unsavory stuff — Conrad is evidently furious that Hassebrook supports stricter limits on subsidies paid to a single farm (a policy also supported by Vilsack and President Barack Obama).

Astonishingly, this back-room brawl in what used to be a back-water agency has gotten high-profile attention. NYT pundit Nicholas Kristof weighed in on his blog recently.

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As I’ve written before, the USDA suddenly operates under the glare of media attention. Can anyone remember a similar situation at USDA during Bush II’s reign? I tried to make a fuss when Bush chose a deputy secretary who had served as president of the Corn Refiners Association. No one seemed to see what the big deal was.

Those days are over. Now the USDA chief’s got reporters bird-dogging him about his attitude toward reform. And he’s been making an effort — unprecedented, as far as I know — to soothe his critics in the sustainable-food world. Here he is waxing downright Pollanesque to a Washington Post reporter:

This is a department that intersects the lives of Americans two to three times a day. Every single American … So I absolutely see the constituency of this department as broader than those who produce our food — it extends to those who consume it.

Vilsack signals a desire for reform in key issues like school lunches. In another context, he even recently commented on the plight of mid-sized farms — a topic dear to my heart.

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But as Michael Pollan told the Washington Post:

He’s definitely sounding a different note than his predecessors … Whether they’ll be reflected in policies remains to be seen.

And as the Post makes clear, while Vilsack faces some pressure from the sustainable-food crowd, Big Ag isn’t going anywhere:

Vilsack will remain under fierce pressure to protect corporate agriculture interests. At Vilsack’s confirmation hearing Jan. 14, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) warned that he should not lose sight of the farmers who produce "the food and fiber for America and a troubled and hungry world."

More evidence that the USDA now operates under the glare of media attention: New York Magazine, not noted for its attention to weighty issues, has published a blog post about the Hassebrook fight (though the author confused Nicholas Kristof for his colleague Paul Krugman).