Needless to say I am more than a little disappointed in President-Elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture; however, I still have hope that he will bring about the change he outlines in his visionary agenda for rural America.
I have included a letter to the members of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, an organization near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the thoughts and sentiments of Brian Snyder, PASA’s wise and well-spoken executive director:
Dear PASA Members,
Several of you have written to share your thoughts, or ask for mine, regarding President-elect Obama’s selection last week of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for our new Secretary of Agriculture. It has taken a few days for me to absorb the information and reflect on it, and I offer the following thoughts for your own consideration.
Though I am optimistic about the future of the sustainable ag movement and where it might go during the Obama administration, I would agree with many of you that there is plenty of reason for caution and concern with respect to the appointment of Vilsack. First off, he would be the third former Midwestern governor in an row to hold that position, perpetuating the institutional bias in Washington that tends to have in mind vast expanses of monoculture when thinking of what a farm is and should be. Vilsack has also been a strong supporter of corn-based ethanol production, which has come under increasing scrutiny as a likely diversion from rather than solution for our nation’s energy problems. Of course, along with that he is a strong advocate for bioengineered crops of all kinds.
But despite these concerns, I think we should all consider the following three factors that I would submit are true beyond much doubt:
1) It was never really “in the cards” that one of the candidates put forward by the sustainable ag community in that petition we circulated two weeks ago would get the job, especially after appearing on such a list. Given the entrenchment of the conventional ag establishment, the confirmation hearing would have been a circus, which probably would not have benefited anyone.
2) The revolution in agriculture that we are working for has never been, nor ever will be top-down in nature. The “change” we seek is happening one farmer and one consumer at a time, bit by bit as an evolution of the marketplace itself. So far as I can tell, government can only try to impede or facilitate this transition to occur, but can never really drive it.
3) We are probably much better off with a former state governor as Secretary of Agriculture than we would be with a member of Congress who might have served on either Ag Committee, or with some other member of the conventional establishment who already has strong relationships with big agribusiness. Governors in general are practiced at finding compromise and pleasing a wide range of people with diverse interests – a skill that will certainly be needed at the USDA if we are to make any headway at all in the next four years.
So, while I am not defending the selection of Vilsack, I think Obama could have done much worse with respect to our community and our interests. Fact is, we will learn more as some of the next tier of appointments is made to see if the new secretary will foster a diversity of opinion and strategy within the department, or not. Meanwhile, we all can do our best to continue implementing more sustainable food and farming systems in our own backyard, and to make our voices heard when the opportunities arise.
As for me, I will invite Secretary Vilsack to attend our conference in February to witness firsthand the strength, diversity and positive nature of our movement. He is after all a native of Pennsylvania (born and raised in Pittsburgh), and might find such a homecoming to be just the right touch at the beginning of his tenure. But whether or not he comes, I look forward to seeing many of you there again this year, as once again we shall certainly have much to talk about by then!
All of us on the staff and board of PASA wish all of you a most joyous holiday season. May you rediscover for yourselves not only the true meaning of this blessed season, but the motivation that will send you back out to the gardens, fields and pastures in the New Year in the interest of serving all humankind in the most basic of ways, with the gift of life and wellbeing that comes most purely from our farms.
Another indicator of change is Obama’s pick for Secretary of Labor and her commitment to Green Jobs. Read Van Jones' (author of NY Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy) take on future Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
To read about Van Jones and Green Collar Jobs in the Philadelphia Area click here.