Old guard still reigns at USDA, even under Obama


Although Barack Obama has been president but a few days we can already say with certainty — unlike before his inauguration — he cannot fly, leap tall buildings or walk on water.

Those feats, however, are chopped liver compared to cracking the good old boy cabal at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


So far, say the foodies who backed Barack, the new prez is buckling to the status quo by appointing ag biz-types at USDA rather than fighting for a new team with new ideas.

Maybe. But the old guard — big farm groups, ag biz — is scared by the change Obama represents and here’s why: They are using their clout in Congress and the press to hammer foodie efforts to influence USDA sub-cabinet appointments that are seen as threats to Big Ag’s stranglehold on USDA.


For example, an Iowa-based sustainable agriculture and rural advocacy group, Food Democracy Now!, spent the Obama transition period floating a web-based petition that endorsed a list of “sustainable” USDA appointees.

The list included more mild than wild folks: Gus Schumacher, Massachusetts’ former ag director and USDA undersecretary; Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s secretary of state and former head of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the widely-respected Center for Rural Affairs and Sarah Vogel, a Bismarck, N.D. attorney and, formerly, that state’s two-term commissioner of agriculture.

Within weeks, the petition garnered nearly 75,000 signatures. Signers included celebrity chefs like Alice Waters, acclaimed writers like Wendell Berry and ag economists such as Missouri’s John Ikerd.

Everyday folks

Most, however, were just everyday folks — consumers — who just wanted safe peanut butter for their kids.

What they’re getting, however, are items they neither asked for nor want, principally a global food web sprinkled with salmonella, E. coli, melamine, GMOs, BST and institutions they no longer trust.


Reaction to the petition’s success was swift and sarcastic.

The most poisonous came Jan. 14 from Kansas Republican Pat Roberts during the Senate Ag Committee’s confirmation hearing for now-USDA chief Tom Vilsack.

Responding to Vermont’s Patrick Leahy bragging on his legislative role in today’s organic food movement, Roberts shared with Vilsack his view of a Leahy’s beloved “small family farmer.”

He’s “about 5-foot-2,” cracked Roberts smugly, “…and he sits on his porch and reads Gentleman’s Quarterly… and his wife works as a stockbroker downtown.”

Roberts, who as chairman of the House Ag Committee in 1996 delivered America its first $100 billion-plus farm bill (after promising it would cost less than $50 billion), then described a real farmer to Iowa’s former governor.

Real farmer

“That person is in Iowa. He’s got 2,000 acres and he farms…with his dad. Two brothers are gone because they can’t really sustain that on the farm. His counterpart in Kansas…has 10,000 acres. And his tractor costs about $350,000. It’s amazing!”

The point, Roberts explained, is “that some want to change the mission of the USDA. Some think it should be called the Department of Food or Nutrition or Hunger or really I think what they want is a Department of Anything But Agriculture.”

These folks, he clearly implied, are just magazine reading runts; they’re not farmers.

Real farmers, after all, own $350,000 tractors, run 10,000 acres and have two brothers who “are gone” because, under ag policies and subsidies long championed by Roberts and his ag biz buddies, a farm of even 15 square miles can barely “sustain” one family, let alone three.

In short, this is why USDA serves only big dogs, Roberts lectured Vilsack, not petition-passing poodles sittin’ on porches.


So, foodies, relax. If that’s the best claptrap the ag dinosaurs can come up with, your day is just around the corner.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com



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