President-elect announces ag, interior secretaries | TSLN.com

President-elect announces ag, interior secretaries

Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

DTN file photoPresident-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that as secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack will help unlock the potential of a 21st century agricultural economy.

CHICAGO (DTN) – Tom Vilsack opened his comments Wednesday as nominee for U.S. secretary of agriculture by highlighting what he saw as the “compelling vision” articulated by President-elect Barack Obama for the role of USDA in the next administration.

“It must be about the work of improving profitability for farmers and ranchers and expanding opportunities for the rural communities in which they live,” Vilsack said at a news conference in downtown Chicago. “It must aggressively promote policies and programs that support sustainable practices to conserve and preserve our precious natural resources — our land, our water and our forests.”

As an attorney in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, before he entered politics and served two terms as the state’s governor, Vilsack said he worked with farm families through tough economic times in agriculture during the 1980s.

“I know these people,” Vilsack said. “America’s farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of agriculture who respects them for the contributions they make to all of us every day.”

Vilsack’s decision to start off talking about profitability for farmers and ranchers likely eases some concerns farmers have regarding what they will get from an Obama administration. Though there has been an emphasis in Obama’s cabinet on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and targeting climate change, Wednesday’s announcements of Vilsack as ag secretary and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., as secretary of interior led Obama to frequently reference biofuels, renewable energy and promotion of agriculture.

Vilsack’s appointment came somewhat as a surprise, especially given that Vilsack had told reporters last month that he did not think he would be nominated to serve in the cabinet because, at that point, he had not been contacted.

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“I don’t know who led him to believe that,” Obama said jokingly. “Whoever did obviously was misinformed because here he stands.”

Vilsack did not address that issue, but Obama said Vilsack has been a leader among governors when it comes to clean energy and agriculture.

“Obviously, if you don’t know agriculture, you are not going to be the governor of Iowa,” Obama said. As “fearlessly protective of family farms and the farm economy as he has been, he also has been formidable in thinking about how we can move toward cellulosic ethanol, how we can harvest wind and solar power and the boost those have been to our rural economies.”

In much the same way Obama announced secretary posts as “teams” for security, economics and energy, Vilsack and Salazar were paired to be stewards of America’s natural resources.

“Together, they will serve as guardians of the American landscape on which the health of our economy and the well-being of our families depend,” Obama said.

Obama talked about the appointments of Salazar and Vilsack to “make the rural agenda America’s agenda, to create millions of new green jobs, to free our nation from its dependence on foreign oil” and become better stewards of natural resources.

“How we harness our natural resources – from the farmlands of Iowa to the springs of Colorado – will speak not only to our quality of life, but to our economic growth and our energy future,” Obama said.

Obama said an emphasis on natural resources not only strengthens the agricultural economy, but grows advanced biofuels that will help the country become energy independent.

“And it means ensuring that the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence-peddlers, but family farmers and the American people,” Obama said, sticking to the theme throughout his campaign of criticizing Washington lobbyists.

Obama said Vilsack will help “unlock the potential of a 21st century agricultural economy.” Though organic groups and others criticized Vilsack’s promotion of biotechnology in agriculture, Obama highlighted biotechnology in Iowa agriculture as an aspect of Vilsack’s resume as governor.

“As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use,” Obama said. “Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home. That is the kind of leader I want in my cabinet.”

Obama also pointed out that Vilsack “will not only help ensure that rural America has a true partner in implementing the farm bill and pursuing agricultural research, but that Washington is looking out for everyone from the small family farms that are feeding our communities to the large farms that are feeding the world.”

Vilsack, who recently served as a co-chair on climate change for the Council on Foreign Relations, added that USDA must also work with other departments in the government “to promote American leadership in response to global climate change.” Vilsack also stated that USDA must place nutrition at the center of all food-assistance programs operated by the department. Nearly two-thirds of funding resources for USDA go toward implementing nutrition programs.

With Salazar, Obama said the Colorado native will focus his attention on protecting resources, working with tribal leaders and expanding domestic energy without degrading the land. A fifth-generation rancher whose family settled in the Southwest 400 years ago, Salazar highlighted his cowboy roots by sporting a gray cowboy hat and a bolo tie at the news conference.

One of the elements Obama said he liked about Salazar was the ability to balance differing needs of the environment and development on lands. During the campaign in Western states, Obama said he often heard from farmers and ranchers that Washington did not listen to their concerns, as well as Native Americans’ concerns. Salazar will be able to communicate to the administration the concerns of people on the ground, Obama said.

Obama said Salazar has been a leader working on land, water and environmental issues. Salazar also served as director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, dealing with water management, energy resources and land conservation efforts in the nation. Salazar also highlighted the use of natural resources and renewable energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

“As a nominee to be the secretary of interior, I will do all I can to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil,” Salazar said. “I look forward to working directly with President-elect Obama as part of his team as we take the moon shot on energy independence.”

Salazar also added he will work to promote a “clean-energy economy” as well as help develop a modern electrical grid system.

chris clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com.