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USDA old guard fights new ideas

Although Barack Obama has been president but a few days we can already say with certainty – unlike before his inauguration – that 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 new ideas.

Maybe, but the old guard – big farm groups, ag biz – is scared by the change Obama represents. They are using their clout 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 Pol icy; 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.

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

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. Roberts shared with Vilsack his view of a Leahy’s beloved “small family farmer.”

He’s “about five-foot-two,” 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.

“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 … 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 policies and subsidies long championed by Roberts and ag biz, 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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