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Column: Veneman's departure raises questions about farm support

A friend asked if I had any more predictions like the one I made about Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman keeping her job. If I did, he said, he wanted to bet the other way.

Veneman’s resignation on Nov. 12 — the day my column saying she would remain in office appeared in the Delta Farm Press — took many by surprise. The consensus had been she would stick around a while longer as a reward for being a team player.

Aside from actively campaigning for the President’s re-election, Veneman often seemed to be the point person for pushing administration policies that she must have known would not go over well with farm groups.

In her first year in office in 2001, USDA issued a lengthy report entitled “Food and Agricultural Policy: Taking Stock for the New Century” that said current farm programs were obsolete.

For farm-state congressmen preparing a new farm bill that would build on those programs, the report went over like a lead balloon. Ag Committee leaders ignored the report and wrote a new farm bill that kept the provisions of the 1996 law and added counter-cyclical payments.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Veneman seemed to shift the focus of USDA to homeland security issues such as insuring food safety and combating bioterrorism. Certainly those were important, but they were not a priority among farmers struggling with poor crops and low prices.

Then there was the Conservation Security Program. Although Veneman and the president touted the increased conservation funding in the 2002 farm bill, USDA was more than a year late writing the regulations for the CSP.

When House Republicans gutted the funding for the program, Veneman did not publicly object. Instead, the Agriculture Department came out with a scaled-down watershed-based pilot program that seemed to be targeted at battleground states for the 2004 election.

Veneman generally received plaudits for her handling of the first U.S. case of BSE last December although some carped about the delays in reopening the Japanese market to U.S. beef. She also worked hard to help restart the Doha Round of the WTO talks.

But the lack of emphasis on farm policies that put money directly in farmers’ pockets may have proved to be the biggest hurdle. In recent days, farm groups have been making much of rural America’s solid support for the President on Nov. 2. It could be Veneman’s departure was the first installment on the “political capital” generated by that support.

Personally, I like Ann Veneman. Behind the public façade of a cold, calculating technocrat, Veneman is a warm, caring person who goes out of her way to talk to reporters. Unlike her immediate predecessor, who rarely left Washington, Veneman traveled extensively, representing U.S. agriculture all over.

My thoughts on her successor? I have a favorite, a working farmer who has shown he can manage major USDA agencies and crises such as BSE. But I’m not making any predictions.

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