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Obama’s Next Secretary of Agriculture: The King of Corn

November 17, 2008

Note: Things move quickly in these vital days, and Obama’s decision for secretary of agriculture can’t be far off. For an update on what you can do to make a difference, click here.

By David Thier

kingcornThe food community has been exploding since the day after the election discussing what we’re all sure will be the most important decision facing the president elect – appointing a new secretary of agriculture. It’s a decision that will most likely  be marred by politics, realpolitik, nepotism and all those other grand things which will come to rear their ugly mugs in the face of rampant idealism, but one likes to believe that maybe some decisions will have a semblance of sense behind them – it’s a new day right? Everything’s going to get better?

The next secretary of agriculture will not, most likely, be a bright eyed idealist who has never set foot inside a sprawling, unmanageable beauracracy. Michael Pollan’s name has been thrown around, but he seems an unlikely and unwilling candidate. He has, however, recommended creating an entirely new office of food czar outside of the USDA, one capable of bringing together the disparate public health, agricultural, environmental and economic issues relevant to the nation’s food system while staying outside of the lobbyist stranglehold, but short of dismantling the USDA altogether, we will need a new secretary of agriculture to manage the thing.

The new secretary of agriculture would, ideally, not only be able to acknowledge the dire problems with the current federal food system, but also be able to navigate the beauracracy surrounding it. I am by no means an expert on these issues, but after the jump, I’ve  copy and and pasted compiled a by no means comprehensive list of a few possible candidates from what I’ve seen bouncing around the internet, as well as the currently worst possible candidate.

Gus Schumacher

august-schumacher1This guy loves Yale and thus has a special place in my heart. Gus Schumacher, Jr. is the former Under Secretary, for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gus was responsible for the domestic commodities, insurance and farm credit operations of USDA. In addition, he was in charge of USDA’s international trade and development programs. Prior to his appointment in August 1997, he was the Administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service for 3 years. Before coming to USDA, Mr. Schumacher served as the Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture and at the World Bank. From a farm family in Lexington, Massachusetts, Mr. Schumacher attended Harvard College and the London School of Economics and was a Research Associate in Agribusiness at the Harvard Business School.

John Ikerd 

john_ikerd_webProfessor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri Columbia, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.  John was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri . He worked in private industry for a time and spent thirty years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia. John returned to the University of Missouri 1989, under a cooperative agreement with U.S.D.A, to provide state and national leadership for research and education programs related to sustainable agriculture, retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues relate to the sustainability of agriculture. Author of the following books: Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense –  Small Farms are Real Farms: Sustaining People Through Agriculture – Return to Common Sense – Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture.

Kathleen A. Merrigan 
merriganKathleen Merrigan is Assistant Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and former head of the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service. She is Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program and the Center for Agriculture, Food and Environment at Tufts. She served twice as Expert Consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, five years as Senior Analyst for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and five years as Senior science and technology adviser to Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. She holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Environmental Planning and Policy.

Tim LaSalle 
tim-la-salle_h165Tim LaSalle is CEO of Rodale Institute, a 60-year-old organization dedicated to researching and educating farmers and consumers about sustainable agriculture. He holds his doctorate in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, a master’s in populations genetics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and a bachelor of science degree from California Polytechnic State University. For 12 years, he was a full professor at Cal Poly, where he taught dairy science classes and served as the president and CEO of California’s Agriculture Education Foundation. While at Cal Poly, LaSalle started and operated a conventional dairy near Templeton, California. More recently, LaSalle served in an executive capacity with various nonprofit organizations, including the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County and the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management.

Mark Ritchie

mark_ritchieMark Ritchie serves as Minnesota’s Secretary of State, the state’s chief elections officer. Mark previously worked in the administration of Minnesota’s Governor Rudy Perpich in the Department of Agriculture, responsible for addressing the economic crisis facing family farmer and rural communities. Mark served for twenty years as the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minnesota-based public research center working with businesses, churches, farm organizations, and other civic groups to foster long-term economic and environmental sustainability in Greater Minnesota. In 2003 Mark led National Voice, a national coalition of over two thousand community-based organizations from across the country working together to increase non-partisan civic engagement and voter participation. National Voice, through their “November 2” media campaign, registered over 5 million new voters nationwide, making the effort one of the largest non-partisan voter mobilizations in our nation’s history. Over four hundred Minnesota churches, businesses, unions, schools, and community groups participated in the campaign.

The Enemy: Dennis Wolff

big_bad_wolf_1003PA secretary of agriculture Dennis Wolff has strong ties to Monsanto, and has been reported to have been in talks with the Obama administration about the job, This man should be avoided at all costs, and the resistance is already being organized. Here’s a link to a collection of blog posts about Wolff’s campaign to put Pennsylvania consumers in the dark about whether or not their milk was produce with recombinant bovine growth hormone.

There’s clearly others on the docket, but those are some of the best picks and the worst pick. More suggestions are welcome, but remember that it seems unlikely that either Melina Shannon-Dipietro or Josh Viertel will get the job.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Concerned USDA Employee permalink
    November 28, 2008 12:30 am

    I just wanted to leave a comment about Gus Schumacher. Please No! Not him again! I worked under Gus when he was the Administrator of USDA/FAS and later when he was the Under Secretary. I have never worked for a more scattered and rudderless manager than Gus Schumacher. He is also quite eccentric. Every overseas trip we organized for him (and there were many questionable ones) included a tasking for the Embassy to find him a toy train store. No kidding. There is a lot of depth in the field for Secretary of Agriculture in the green camp so please, please let’s not drift with Gus for another four years!

  2. Dixie Dan permalink
    December 16, 2008 5:47 am

    Tim LaSalle is an inspired choice. He would help the nation see beyond the emphasis on short term devastation production gains are being created at the expense of the future food supply of our country. Wolff would set back the organic movement 20 years overnight. Anyone but him!! Even the train guy would be better.


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