This is a guest post by long-time Iowa organic farmer and food activist, Denise O’Brien, who narrowly lost a bid for the state’s secretary of agriculture post in 2006.


The phones, emails, and blogs are abuzz with the Obama appointment of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the new secretary of agriculture. On one hand, people are ballistic because he is a trial lawyer and doesn’t come "from the farm." On the other hand, many who have known and worked with him in Iowa are not happy with his relationship with big ag, especially Monsanto.

Here’s the story: Vilsack was the first Democrat to hold the office of Governor in Iowa in 40 years — yes, 40. The last Democrat holding the seat was Harold Hughes when many of us were children or not even born.

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Many were ecstatic that a Dem had made it to this high office, and that at last, we would have access. There is no doubt about it — the Governor’s office was accessible. For the first time in years, Dems could walk into the office of the Governor and talk to a Governor of the same party. Expectations were high among the progressive farm and labor folk. We thought we could stop confined animal feeding operations, do something about genetically modified organisms, and have a voice for fair trade. But alas, we found that even though we were of the same party, there were some differences.

Over the years, the Governor’s office was open for a number of meetings relating to trade: prior to the Seattle WTO meeting, occasionally to solve the farm financial crises that emerge every few years, and sporadically to develop food policy. During Vilsack’s administration, we were in his office more frequently than all of the past 20 years of farm activism combined.

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During his administration it quickly dawned on many that our Governor Tom Vilsack was a centrist like former President Bill Clinton, and we were likely to disagree on a lot of issues. What’s a progressive to do? Give up? Not bother to even engage in discussions about relevant issues?

The best thing to do was to keep talking and to keep exposing the governor to a more progressive line of thinking. We resigned ourselves to the fact that our expectations of a democratic governor were exactly that — expectations — and that there was still a lot of work to do.

There were a number of times that Governor Vilsack did act on issues that were more in line with a progressive agenda: He brought people together for problem solving; he appointed a strong leader as the head of the Department of Natural Resources who worked hard, ultimately unsuccessfully, to rein in CAFOs; and he also appointed people to the Environmental Protection Council who were intelligent and outspoken in their opposition to the CAFOs. Alas, big ag still had the upper hand.

One of the best progressive accomplishments under his watch was the creation, by executive order, of the Iowa Food Policy Council. This was the second statewide council of its type to form in the United States. A number of progressives served on IFPC, and we were able to make inroads on issues of food security, local foods, farmers markets, and programs addressing the needs of people in poverty — food stamps and WIC. Yes, this happened in Iowa, the "Belly of the Beast" of agribusiness, and Vilsack was the leader that made it happen.

The bottom line is that we can work with Governor Vilsack. I know this from a personal perspective. When I ran for secretary of agriculture in the state of Iowa, I had to first win a primary. Vilsack encouraged and supported a man who had worked for him during his governor years. My opponent had much help — money and volunteers — to make his campaign successful, but it didn’t work.

I was able to win by a margin of 14 or 15 points. And the night I won the primary, Governor Vilsack called me up and told me that a large check would be waiting for me when I saw him the next day. I admire that. I beat the pants off the man he supported, but when the contest was over, he gave his full support to me.

During the months prior to the election, Governor Vilsack often attended at the same events as me, and he heard my platform many times: "Safe and Healthy Families, Safe and Healthy Farms and a Safe and Healthy Iowa." I can’t help but think that some of what I said has taken root and that he will be an ally to us.

With regard to Vilsack’s appointment, I want the progressive community to know that I am not selling out. I am not naïve; I am, however, a realist. As a progressive, I am not happy that someone from the foodie constituency was not chosen, but the sustainable/organic ag/foodies/local foods progressives have not quite arrived to the point of having as much influence as we would like to believe.

Many times I feel that I live in a bubble and that everyone is on the same page with me. It is a time like this, when a mainstream person is appointed to an influential position, that I realize there is still a lot of work to do.

My years of being a farm and food activist have taught me how to work with what I’ve got and to never give up. What we have is Tom Vilsack and what we have to keep in mind is that he knows the sustainable/organic/foodie community in Iowa and beyond. He knows we are hardworking, serious individuals who believe passionately in the issues of food and farm.

My hope is that this will be present with him as he moves into his work as the secretary of agriculture. Our work is cut out for us. It is important to keep the pressure on and continue to recommend people to fill the positions that will facilitate the scaling of work we have already accomplished. The pathways of agriculture and agribusiness are complex. The new secretary of agriculture needs our help to maneuver that path.

We have much work to do, and we must continue to carry the message of hope.