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New agriculture secretary viewed as a surprise choice

Farm organizations must have been in a near-panic following President Bush's announcement that Mike Johanns was his choice to succeed Ann M. Veneman as secretary of agriculture. Staff members had to scramble to find much to say about the Nebraska governor who was on none of the “short lists” for the post.

“He just came out of left field,” said a member of an ag group holding its annual meeting the day after the announcement. One speaker at the meeting jokingly told members that if they were acquainted with any family members or even knew anyone who knew Gov. Johanns to let him know.

Farm Bureau produced the most detailed picture of Johanns' ag-related activities, noting that, as “lead governor for agriculture for the Western Governor's Association, Johanns helped lead the fight for passage of the 2002 farm bill.”

AFBF President Bob Stallman said Johanns' service as chairman of the Governors' Ethanol Committee should give him a better understanding of the importance of ethanol.

Aside from growing up on an Iowa dairy farm, Johanns' only connection to agriculture appears to be that he has led trade missions to Asia, promoting exports of beef and other Nebraska agricultural products.

Johanns reportedly was the president's second choice from Nebraska and possibly his third or fourth choice nationwide for the post. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, reportedly turned down the offer, as did Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse.

Sources say Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, who lost his bid for re-election in November, discussed the position with administration officials but declined it because of “personality issues.”

Stenholm's refusal probably had more to do with lingering hard feelings over Texas' congressional redistricting, but some observers say the impending draconian cuts in farm programs may have made other candidates reluctant to take the position.

Other than Stenholm, little consideration apparently was given to candidates from the Sun Belt. Bill Hawks, a Mississippi farmer and current undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, reportedly was not offered the post although Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran recommended Hawks.

Johanns' biography lists some of his bigger accomplishments as reductions in the size and cost of the governor's office staff, reallocation of surplus sales and income tax dollars into property tax relief and providing incentives for business growth and job creation, including an emphasis on value-added agriculture.

People who know him say he is also likely to favor tighter payment limits and to oppose mandatory country-of-origin-labeling, a hot button issue in Nebraska, the largest beef packing state. He is also expected to put a bigger focus on western drought issues.

It's also interesting to note that a few days before Johanns was named, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley said the next secretary should be a working farmer who had “dirt under the fingernails.”

Grassley later endorsed Johanns even though it's hard to imagine a politician who's been farther away from working agriculture in his professional career.

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