Politics & Government

Finally, Californian appointed to top USDA post

WASHINGTON — California farmers on Monday landed a close ally in a key federal position, with the selection of Rayne Pegg as administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Currently deputy director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Pegg will now become the highest-ranking Californian in the Obama administration's Agriculture Department. She will oversee cotton, fruit and vegetable programs, among others.

"It's exciting," Pegg said in a brief telephone interview Monday afternoon. "It's a new opportunity, and the (Agricultural Marketing Service) has great programs connecting farmers with consumers."

With roughly 5,500 employees and an annual budget of about $76 million, the Agricultural Marketing Service is the part of the Agriculture Department perhaps most directly tied to California.

The agency administers promotion programs serving the cotton, dairy and egg industries, among others. It runs marketing orders serving the almond, raisin and walnut industries, among others. It oversees the federal organic agriculture program and country of origin labeling.

But it's the big fruit-and-vegetable focus, in particular, which gives the agency a relatively high profile within California's $36 billion-a-year agricultural sector. The state is far less reliant on traditional crop subsidies than many other farm states.

"Rayne's selection for this position helps bring California's agricultural interests to Washington," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Cardoza joined with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and other Californians in promoting Pegg's candidacy. Behind the scenes, the lawmakers had begun grumbling that their state was in danger of getting shortchanged in Agriculture Department appointments.

None of President Barack Obama's 13 Senate-confirmed nominations to the Agriculture Department have come from California. Only two of Agriculture Secretary Mike Vilsack's 41 appointments until now have any discernible California connection, a review of nomination documents shows.

Over the past month or so, however, the 33-year-old Pegg has been increasingly mentioned as a potential candidate for the Agricultural Marketing Service job. It does not require Senate confirmation.

"Her appointment says a lot about her, but it also says a lot about our department," said Michael T. Jarvis, the California Department of Food and Agriculture's deputy secretary for public affairs. "We're the biggest ag state, and we have a lot of things going on in agriculture."

As the state agency's deputy director for policy and legislation over the past year, Pegg has handled liaison with the California Legislature. She has advised the department's director as well as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cabinet on farm-related issues.

Previously, Pegg worked for four years at the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento, focusing on trade issues. A Los Angeles native and graduate of the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, she also worked for four years with the Agricultural Council of California.

The agricultural council represents farm cooperatives, such as Sunkist and Blue Diamond Growers, which have many dealings with the Agricultural Marketing Service.

"Rayne Pegg brings years of experience to USDA from her work on agricultural issues both as a distinguished public servant and in the non-profit community," Vilsack said in a prepared statement.

Jarvis is married and a mentor for Wonder Inc., a support network for foster children. She is scheduled to start her new job in July, after finishing some of her current California assignments.

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