Ag choice Vilsack’s record is more complicated than sometimes thought

Several progressive farm groups, including a couple in Minnesota, are raising their pitchforks in anger over President-elect Barack Obama’s nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to be the next secretary of agriculture. More criticism of the Vilsack appointment came from Tom Philpott, who writes an excellent food-and-farm column for Grist.

The basic rap on Vilsack is that he is a conventional big ag guy. And mainline farm groups and the giant chemical companies like Monsanto aren’t helping his reputation among the progressives by praising his appointment. (It does sometimes seem that everything the Minnesota Farm Bureau favors, the Organic Consumers Association opposes; it is sometimes difficult to believe they are in the same business.)

Much of the criticism of the two-term governor, who is a lawyer, comes because of his support for genetically modified food and corn-based ethanol. (Could he get elected governor of Iowa without those positions?) But there are other issues – ones that have been overlooked – that make Vilsack less of a company man than his opponents are implying.

I checked with my pal Perry Beeman, who has been covering the environment as a reporter for the Des Moines Register for nearly three decades, on the Vilsack record. Beeman noted that Vilsack butted heads with big ag on several issues during his years as governor.

Supported local control of hog farms
For example, Vilsack consistently supported local control of hog confinement operations. In Iowa, the state regulates the siting of factory farms; cities and counties have virtually no say. This removes the NIMBY factor from factory farm placements and has allowed, critics say, big pig lots to land wherever they please. (Vilsack’s attempts at local control were consistently blocked by the state legislature.)

Vilsack also called for a study to be conducted by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa to document the dangers of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide coming from factory farms. This effort, which led to a bill to regulate air emissions from livestock confinement facilities, was also stopped by the legislature.

One successful piece of legislation monitors the state’s water quality – the law ended up documenting all the pollution caused by factory farms. His Department of Natural Resources detailed sources of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways – manure and synthetic fertilizer – that originated at the farms.

Vilsack, who would be the first Iowan to be secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace worked for FDR, was once Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination and tossed his support to Hillary Clinton after he dropped out. He is a cap-and-trade supporter and a big fan of Conservation Reserve programs, which should make both the carbon-sink and pheasant hunters happy. And, in this Grist interview he makes the case for a switch to cellulosic from grain-based ethanol.

And, as in many of these appointments, it is worth watching who gets the second-tier jobs. The nomination puts Iowa in a very strong position on farm policy with the presence Sen. Tom Harkin as the chair of the ag committee.

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