Is Obama’s new Ag Sec, Tom Vilsack, green?

Today, PEBO officially named former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to run the Department of Agriculture. I have met him on more than one occasion, and he certainly understands that corn ethanol is not the future of biofuels. He also believes in strong action on greenhouse gas emissions.

He is a biotech guy, as Grist makes clear. And he isn’t the greenest Ag guy in the country (see here). But he is more green than not, as Greenwire reports:

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said today he was pleased with the Vilsack selection. The coalition’s members in Iowa have had an easy time working with Vilsack, who has consistently shown support for conservation programs, Hoefner said.

“He is not going to be a revolutionary change agent,” Hoefner said. “But relative to other political names that were suggested, he is more on the change end of the continuum than many other names.”

Here is more background from Greenwire:

Obama described the appointment of the Iowa Democrat as constituting a key part of his energy team, highlighting Vilsack’s experience as an advocate for wind and solar power and biofuels. He announced the appointment at a press conference in Chicago, where he also named Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) Interior secretary.

“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,” Obama said. “That is the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet.”

Obama said he would call on Vilsack to ensure that farmlands are used to grow “advanced biofuels,” to implement the farm bill, to look out for farms of all sizes and to pursue more agricultural research.

Both agriculture and environmental groups welcomed the appointment. Vilsack is a political centrist who is sympathetic to large agribusiness operations, but he has supported scaling back some subsidy programs.

As governor of Iowa, he advocated for biofuels, agricultural biotechnology, conservation programs and stronger water quality standards.

“He’s been outspoken on the need for farm subsidy reform and an advocate for conservation programs, which is encouraging,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, once thought a contender for the post, said Vilsack is a “great choice” who would be “right on target” to advance a rural platform with more renewable energy development.

Vilsack’s appointment also adds another strong voice on climate change to Obama’s cabinet. As co-chairman of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on climate change, Vilsack said last summer that the next president should make climate a “signature issue.” A report from the task force calls for the United States to implement a cap-and-trade system and adopt policies encouraging low-carbon development abroad.

Vilsack emerged as the likely front-runner for Agriculture secretary shortly after Obama’s election in November. But speculation about Vilsack all but stopped in late November after he told reporters he hadn’t been contacted by the Obama team and was not a candidate for the job. Asked today what had happened between then and now, Obama declined to address the selection process.

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

In newspaper op-ed columns this fall that some farm lobbyists said looked like applications for the job of Agriculture Secretary, Vilsack highlighted the need to put agriculture and renewable energy at the center of plans for both economic development and carbon offsets.

If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack will lead a sprawling agency with an annual budget of more than $90 billion, more than 100,000 employees spread in offices across the country and jurisdiction over farm programs, food aid and rural energy development.

Most of the major farm policy issues are already set in the farm bill, but Vilsack will oversee the implementation of that legislation for the next four years and will potentially have an opportunity to start laying the groundwork for the next round of farm bill debates.

Vilsack follows a recent line of former Midwestern governors at the Agriculture Department. Current Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer had once been governor of North Dakota. The previous Bush appointee, Mike Johanns, was formally governor of Nebraska.

No drastic changes expected

As the former governor of a state with major hog and corn production, Vilsack is not expected to make drastic changes to many farm support programs.

Some sustainable agriculture advocates had hoped Obama’s campaign for change might lead to a more revolutionary pick for USDA.

High profile “foodies” like writer Michael Pollan had a “sustainable six” list of nominees that included Gus Schumacher, a former USDA undersecretary in the Clinton administration. An online petition drive, fooddemocracynow.org, pushed candidates like Neil Hamilton, a farm law expert at Drake University. Vilsack was not on either list.

I doubt there is a big distance between him and Obama on Ag issues — and at least PEBO did not pick another senator from a purple state for the job!

Bottom Line: A solid pick, and given how terrific someof PEBO’s other picks are, nothing to lose sleep over.