The Obama transition team is reportedly going to announce the new USDA chief in the next few days.

If the short list of candidates now being circulated is any indication, the president-elect is feeling serious pressure to make an agribiz-friendly choice.

But just as pressure can be applied from above, it can also come from below. As I mentioned last week, a group of sustainable-ag activists and writers has sent a letter [PDF] to Obama urging him to make a progressive pick. Initial signees included Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Anna Lappe, and Alice Waters. (Full disclosure: My Maverick Farms colleague Hillary Wilson and I signed as well.)

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Now the group that initiated the letter — Food Democracy Now! of Iowa — is taking it public, urging all citizens to sign on. Normally I don’t put much stock in online petitions. However, in this time of hope, who knows — maybe such gestures can make a difference.

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Meanwhile, for an example of just how much difference the next USDA chief could make, check out a brand-new report [PDF] (press release here) by the Iowa-based Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment. The report documents how one of the Farm Bill’s main conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), has largely become a sop to large concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs). Money quote from the press release:

The report, entitled Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough, estimates that between 2003 and 2007, roughly 1,000 industrial hog and dairy operations have captured at least $35 million per year in taxpayer support through EQIP.

Ag policy expert Elanor Starmer, who blogs at Ethicurean authored the report. She tells me that the USDA leadership has plenty of say over how EQIP gets implemented. For example, the USDA could prohibit new or expanding CAFOs from grabbing EQIP cash.

Elanor also reminds me that Obama actually commented on the EQIP-as-sop-to-meat-industry problem in his campaign platform. His “Real Leadership for Rural America” [PDF] document had this to say:

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Limit EQIP Funding for CAFOs: Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that we should help farmers find the resources to comply with environmental requirements. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides important financial support to farmers seeking to improve the environmental quality of their operations. Unfortunately, the 2002 Farm Bill lifted the cap on the size of livestock operations that can receive EQIP funding, enabling large livestock operations to receive EQIP payments and subsidizing big CAFOs by as much as $450,000. Barack Obama and Joe Biden supports reinstating a strict cap on the size of the livestock operations that can receive EQIP funding so that the largest polluters have to pay for their own environmental clean up.

That message gives me hope that Obama will choose a progressive to head USDA.