Agriculture nominee breezes through confirmation hearing

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack sailed through his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday while pledging enthusiastic support for federal purchases of fruits and vegetables.

A former Iowa governor, Vilsack effectively reassured specialty crop growers in states such as California, Florida and Texas that their interests will be protected within a sprawling agency most often associated with traditional Midwestern commodities.

"We can work with our schools to make sure fruits and vegetables are available," Vilsack said at the start of his session before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "We will be very aggressive in this area."

Vilsack specifically praised groundbreaking specialty-crop provisions in the farm bill that was adopted last year over President George W. Bush's veto. These include $1 billion to purchase fruits and vegetables for school snacks in all 50 states. He endorsed other programs that help promote specialty crops overseas, and committed to support federal programs that assist organic agriculture.

He endorsed President-elect Barack Obama's vow to end child hunger in the United States by 2015.

The repeated invocation of fruit-and-vegetable programs, which account for only a fraction of the Agriculture Department's $95 billion annual budget, prompted one Midwestern lawmaker to urge Vilsack not to forget the needs of big commodity farms.

Vilsack, 58, assured Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas that he strongly supports those wheat, cotton and corn farms as well.

A former trial lawyer and two-term governor, Vilsack easily won over Republican as well as Democratic members of the committee, and his nomination hasn't excited any Capitol Hill opposition. The hearing lasted a little more than two hours, and frequently only two or three senators from the 21-member committee were in the room at a time. Although lobbyists lined up outside before the hearing, there were plenty of seats still available for audience members.

"Your swift confirmation will ensure the Department of Agriculture has the leadership it needs," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the panel's senior Republican.

Vilsack was born in Pennsylvania to an unwed mother and a father whose name he still doesn't know. He was adopted, and went on to graduate from Hamilton College in New York state and then Albany Law School. He rose through various elected offices in Iowa before serving as governor, and made a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination that started in November 2006 and ended three months later.

While he didn't propose any new agriculture programs, Vilsack sounded open to the notion of providing additional assistance to troubled dairy farmers.

"There have been some very tragic circumstances in California, where dairy farmers have been so distressed that they have taken their own lives," Vilsack noted. "We need to . . . provide a glide path to stability in the industry."

Married to a teacher, Vilsack owns a 592-acre Iowa farm, about half of which is devoted to cropland. He reported receiving federal conservation payments, totaling about $7,500 a year, but hasn't received crop subsidies. He'll take a pay cut to join Obama's Cabinet, making only about two-thirds of the $300,000 a year he reported earning with the Des Moines-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

Vilsack still hasn't named his deputy secretary, a key position for which California farm groups are promoting Karen Ross, the president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

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