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Support, opposition grows for Veneman as agricultural secretary

January 12, 2001|By Erika Buck , Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Ann Veneman, whose confirmation hearings as President-elect George W. Bush's selection to head the Agriculture Department begin next week, would bring a California perspective and a strong background in international trade to the job.

Imperial County farm officials were enthusiastic about Veneman's appointment, partly because of her experience confronting California's unique agricultural problems.

Unlike most other states, California enjoys a year-round growing season, which supports 350 different crops. The state's farmers also have unique problems in water rights and pest control.

‘‘I think it's good for California to have a Californian for secretary of agriculture,'' said Imperial County Agriculture Commissioner Steve Birdsall. ‘‘Most of the farmers I've talked to are encouraged by Ann's selection and what that means for local farmers.''

Some Midwestern farm officials said Veneman's California experience might make her less likely to address their concerns, although there is no serious threat to her confirmation by the Senate.

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Veneman got firsthand experience with California agriculture during her 1995-1999 tenure as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture under then-Gov. Pete Wilson. When Imperial Valley experienced a crippling whitefly infestation in 1991, Veneman visited the Valley and was instrumental in developing and financing a plan to bring the pest under control, Birdsall said.

‘‘She understands all of these issues. Having someone back (in Washington) who is aware of what we do here is very helpful because you don't have to go through the education process,'' said Birdsall.

Wilson praised Veneman's ability to solve problems, citing a 1996 scare that California strawberries were tainted with hepatitis A.

‘‘She dug into the facts and determined there was no basis in fact for the charge,'' said Wilson. ‘‘Publicly, before a group of reporters, she consumed a bowl of those supposedly tainted strawberries.''

As the first woman to head the state agriculture department, Veneman worked aggressively to expand exports for California farm commodities, traveling frequently to Pacific Rim countries and developing relationships with trade representatives.

Veneman's nomination signals the Bush administration will push to expand international trade for U.S. farm commodities.

‘‘One of the most important facets of providing for a stable agriculture market is the continuation of trade, and her experience dealing with trade issues can only help the American farmer,'' said Scott Stenzel, transition spokesman for the agriculture department. ‘‘As President-elect Bush has advocated throughout the campaign, we should continue to work to open markets throughout the world.''

But not everyone was convinced agriculture policies under Veneman would benefit all U.S. farmers. Some groups feared that small farms would lose out when the 1996 Farm Bill, which will expire in 2003, comes up for debate later this year.

‘‘We've looked into Ann Veneman's record,'' said Bryce Oates, spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering farmers. ‘‘She's had quite a time with corporate agribusiness. She'll be a roadblock to family farmers because she's controlled by corporate interests.''

Some are worried that, with a Californian in the office, the needs of Midwestern farmers wouldn't get a proper hearing during the farm bill debate. Prices for staple crops such as soybeans and corn are at record lows and will only rise without drastic reform of the farm bill, according to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. And with the dollar at record highs, opening foreign trade will only hurt farmers, said Hansen.

‘‘We have right now allowed commodity prices to collapse to record lows. It's dreadful,'' said Hansen. ‘‘Opening up markets when you have a strong dollar puts us at a disadvantage. You need to protect value, not volume.''

One way the Agriculture Department could allay concerns about regional imbalance would be to appoint a Midwesterner as undersecretary, said Ed Wiederstein, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.

‘‘Ideally, we would like to see someone from the Midwest in one of those positions so that they understand the issues of Midwestern agriculture,'' Wiederstein said. ‘‘But more importantly, we would like to see someone who is qualified to handle the position so that they get things done.''

The Bush-Cheney transition team predicted Veneman will pass her confirmation process despite the concerns.

‘‘As with all cabinet designees, we expect they will be asked probing questions about their views, but we're confident that Ms. Veneman is well-suited for the job and well-prepared to answer those questions,'' said Stenzel.

Veneman served as deputy secretary of agriculture under former President Bush from 1991 to 1993. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to head the department.

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