Panel of Ag Secretaries

December 10, 2008

December 10, 2008

Hello everybody out there in farm country. This radio commentary is brought to you by the Renewable Fuels Association, Wal-Mart Stores, Monsanto, and John Deere. They are all friends, supporters, and allies of a healthy farm economy and prosperous rural America. Thank you.

And now for today's commentary--

A once-in-a-lifetime panel featuring seven former Secretaries of Agriculture spoke to the challenges that a Secretary faces and the issues of the day. This was presented at the Food and Ag Policy Summit last week -- seven Secretaries -- Bob Berglund, Clayton Yeutter, Mike Espy, Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman, Mike Johanns, and Yours Truly. I can say sincerely that it was a lot of fun and informative.

To add to the uniqueness of the event, the panel was moderated by Charlie Stenholm (former Congressman from Texas). Charlie just happens to be one of the names on the short list for Obama's Secretary of Agriculture. We should know soon.

We all advised the new Secretary of Agriculture to select his team quickly. If you do that, the White House Presidential Personnel Office will probably rubber-stamp your selections. If you are slow, your department will become a "dumping ground" for political hacks crying for a job in the new Administration.

Every Secretary must be prepared to deal with problems that come out of the blue. Ann Veneman had to deal with the wild frenzy over Mad Cow Disease that exploded in Britain. I had the Carter grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Our farmers were hurting. I found in my very first Cabinet meeting, to my surprise, that some other Cabinet members did not support the idea of lifting the embargo, even though, during the campaign, President Reagan had promised to lift it. When I asked President Reagan to lift the embargo, they jumped all over me. I had to find some allies to convince President Reagan how desperate farmers were for trade relief. He lifted it. Poor Mike Espy was confronted with a food poisoning death his first week on the job. You just never know.

We all agreed that it would help agriculture if the public really understood the huge and diverse responsibilities that USDA must shoulder. Food and nutrition programs are well over 60% of the budget. I'm talking School Lunch, Food Stamps, and don't forget food safety. Forty thousand USDA employees work for the Forest Service -- a very important part of USDA. The Department of Agriculture is not just a farm department.

I suggested the name -- U.S. Department of Agriculture -- should be changed to the U.S. Department of Food, Agriculture, and Forestry. That would be more descriptive.

The bipartisan panel delivered a wealth of good advice for the next Secretary of Agriculture and new President. I was proud to be a part of it.

Until next week, I am John Block from Washington.