WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama reached into the heart of the nation's corn-growing midsection last week in selecting Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa, to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although the selection was criticized by some food-industry and environmental watchdogs, retail observers told SN that they expect the 58-year-old attorney to be a positive force for supermarket operators. As head of the USDA, he will oversee a $95 billion budget that includes food assistance programs for the poor — programs he had supported as governor.
Vilsack was said to be a pragmatic “centrist” who carefully considers a range of opinions.
“When I heard the news, my first thought was, ‘This is going to be good for the industry,’” said Jerry Fleagle, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, based in Des Moines. “He's always been open to new ideas, and that was always very much appreciated when he was governor here.”
He cited the example of Vilsack's approval of a 7-cent reimbursement fee paid to retailers in Iowa — higher than in other nearby states — for the processing of electronic food-benefits transactions.
Ric Jurgens, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, told SN last week that Vilsack was an “effective administrator.”
“He gained a reputation as a thoughtful listener, which will serve our industry well as he deals with important issues like food safety and inspection,” he said. “Those who aren't very familiar with him will find him an extremely intelligent person. His intellect and vast agriculture experience make him a natural choice for secretary of agriculture.”
Fleagle said he anticipates that Vilsack will “really sink his teeth” into food safety issues as head of the USDA, and in a way that will take retailers' concerns into consideration.
Among the criticisms of Vilsack was his long-standing support of the ethanol industry, but Fleagle pointed out that the former governor has focused more on the long-range potential for renewable fuels in general, not just ethanol made from corn. Subsidies of the corn-based ethanol industry have been a topic of heated debate in the past few years as critics blame the diversion of corn to make fuel for contributing to rising food prices.
In Iowa, Vilsack also was a strong supporter of developing wind energy facilities, Fleagle noted. “He'll be looking at what the next generation of renewable fuels is going to be.”
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, told SN last week that he thinks Vilsack's appointment will be a positive for both retailers and vegetable and fruit growers.
“He's been a strong supporter of food assistance programs, such as WIC (the Women, Infants and Children benefits program) and helping food stamp recipients, so I would anticipate that the relationship with retail as well as the produce segment will be pretty positive,” Stenzel said.
He added that the produce industry is hopeful that Vilsack will help prevent budget cuts from impacting the 2008 Farm Bill.
Vilsack has also been a proponent of innovation in the produce industry, which fits in with the objectives of the UFPA, Stenzel said.
The nominated USDA secretary has been criticized for his support of industrial farming and genetically engineered crops, however.
The Organic Consumers Association had urged Obama not to select Vilsack because he represented “the continuation of agribusiness as usual — the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture.”