A job fit only for an ag superhero


My son Jon has a favorite song by the rock band Matchbox 20 that asks, “I wonder what it’s like to be a superhero?”

Good question. It sure would be fun to fly around and stamp out crime and evil, to change the world.

Well, a new report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation says the next U.S. secretary of agriculture will have to be a “superhero,” someone with “open-mindedness, empathy, insight, wisdom, decisiveness and resolution,” said Don Paarlberg, who served as staff economist for Sec. Ezra Taft Benson (1953-61).

That’s a tall order. And while we typically associate the USDA exclusively with agriculture and farm programs, the USDA is more than cows and corn. The report points out that approximately 40 percent of USDA employees work for the U.S. Forest Service, a rather independent arm of the USDA. More than half of the USDA’s annual budget of $63 billion is spend on domestic food and nutrition programs, such as school lunches and food stamps. It has a housing loan portfolio of more than $30 billion.

“If USDA were a private company,” said current USDA Secretary Dan Glickman in a 1995 speech, “it would rank fourth among U.S. corporations – smaller than General Motors, Exxon or Ford, but larger than IBM, General Electric and Wal-Mart.”

Who wants that job?

“Selecting secretaries has not been easy for the last 70 years and it is going to become more difficult,” adds Neil Harl, Iowa State University economist and Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture, in the report, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: Role in the 21st Century Food System.

“Agriculture is not in a stable part of its history. We will see enormous change,” Harl says in perhaps the understatement of the year. “The secretary will have to have standing politically with the president’s natural constituents and with commodity and farmer groups because they are becoming more powerful.”

The next secretary of agriculture will face such contentious issues as the structure of agriculture, biotechnology and environmental issues. “The next secretary will have to be someone who knows production agriculture as well as these issues or they will have a tough time accomplishing anything,” observes Purdue University’s Otto Doering, who has worked with USDA on several farm bills.

Harl puts it this way: “The secretary will need a thick skin and stamina.”

“The next secretary also should have administrative talent and a vision about USDA’s role and lead it in that direction, or they will be whipsawed around,” Doering added.

Sounds like a modern superhero to me.

Leading a huge agency – where the joke goes something like there’s a USDA bureaucrat for every U.S. farmer – takes CEO-like leadership. Working with the next administration and Capitol Hill takes credibility and political savvy. Steering ag policy, which will enter the debate arena shortly, will take patience.

Long-time USDA historian Wayne Rasmussen warns that an ag background may be less important for the next secretary. “There will need to be a greater emphasis on domestic food programs,” Rasmussen said. “Secretaries must recognize that 100 percent of the people in this country are consumers and only 2 percent are farmers.”

I wonder what it’s like to be a superhero? Let’s hope the next president finds one soon.


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