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Less regulation for agriculture?

As a pro-business Bush administration prepares to take the reins of power in Washington, agriculture interests are hopeful that the next four years will see more understanding and less regulatory red tape from two key agencies, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

While feelings about outgoing Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman have been somewhat ambivalent, depending on the area of the country, he nonetheless was viewed by many as one of the less effective secretaries, and EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who oversaw the enactment of some of the most sweeping environmental regulations in history, had few fans in the agriculture sector.

Bush's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Californian Ann Veneman, a 51-year-old lawyer, is no stranger to the world of farming ("I was born a poor little peach farmer's daughter") - or to USDA for that matter, having served as deputy secretary (1991-93), deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs (1989-91), associate administrator for the Foreign Agriculture Service (1987-89), and assistant to the administrator of the FAS (1986-87). Following her USDA service, from 1995 to 1998, she was California's secretary of food and agriculture, the first woman to hold the post (she will also be the first woman to head USDA).

"She is an excellent choice" who understands the issues farmers face, and "will work hard for U.S. agriculture," says California Farm Bureau Federation's Bill Pauli. "She also understands the importance of opening new markets and expanding agricultural trade around the globe."

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said Veneman "will listen to the needs of U.S. farmers," and having previous USDA service enables her to "understand the dynamics of the Congress, which will be very important as we move forward and debate a new farm bill."

President-elect Bush, who hardly mentioned agriculture during his campaign, has already held preliminary talks with Veneman and the nation's agricultural leaders to discuss issues and to get recommendations on future policy. "Farmers face a lot of issues, and I'm worried about the family farmer and people who make a living off the land," Bush said.

Heading USDA may not be one of the highest profile jobs in Washington, but it is one of the most challenging. Veneman will oversee a department with more than 100,000 employees and a budget of more than $70 billion annually, and will face a laundry list of hot button issues, from lagging commodity prices and slumping international trade to genetically modified crops and high-cost bailouts of agriculture over the past three years.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, 54, Bush's nominee to head the EPA, is described as "a passionate outdoorswoman who will work to safeguard the nation's land, air, and water." A staunch proponent of tax cuts during her career as governor and mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, her record on environmental issues is something of a mixed bag.

Environmental groups fault her for slashing the state's environmental enforcement staff, eliminating public disclosure requirements on some 2,000 chemicals, and reducing fines against polluters. She has given short shrift to those peddling various ecological fears. On the other hand, she spearheaded efforts to clean up much of the polluted Jersey shore and has worked to help preserve the state's open spaces.

Much of the tone for direction of the EPA is expected to come from Bush, whose pro-business stance may result in less of a sledgehammer approach in administering environmental regulations than under the much-maligned Browner.

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