Second -- And Different -- Thoughts On Vilsack

Second Thoughts On Vilsack Okay -- I spent much of yesterday thinking about Obama’s nomination of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture -- and have had second thoughts. And I retract my previous statement. This was a case where I was a bit too close to the situation and didn’t think it all the way through. (I live in Iowa and Vilsack governed the state from 1998 to 2006.)

My initial reaction was: huh? Couldn’t BHO find someone a bit more forward-thinking? But -- in fact, Vilsack engaged in plenty of forward and creative thinking during his two terms as governor. I can see, however, why others might doubt that. After all, Iowa is known primarily for Big Agriculture, and therefore lots of the much-reviled Big Subsidies.

But Vilsack worked hard as governor to force us Iowans to step back and take a second look at how we see “agriculture.” (Which isn’t that easy to do: farming is like air around here; it’s the last thing we notice...)

During his tenure, the state encouraged and fostered research and development in alternative fuels, bio-pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, organic farming, and “alternative” medicine (aka “eastern” medicines), much of which depends on plants. The state created agencies to help foster these areas of R&D, but it also encouraged the two research universities to devote time and resources to these issues.

Among other things, for example, Iowa State University now has a superb program in bioethics, because of course “agriculture” forces humans to deal with the social and ethical consequences of what we put in the ground. Iowa is also now, among the fifty states, the second-largest producer of wind power.

I should also add that although “ethanol” got a lot of attention the past few years, Vilsack encouraged researchers to think waaaaaaay byond corn-as-fuel. There are a number of research projects here in Ames exploring the use of other plants as fuel, including harvest leavings and weeds.

But here’s the point: Vilsack encouraged these efforts because he’s smart and willing to tackle complex problems, but also because he himself is not now and never has been a farmer. (He’s a lawyer.) His view of agriculture was that of an outsider and, as a result, was more forward-looking and creative than many of our previous governors who did come from farming backgrounds. (Indeed, as the news broke yesterday about Vilsack’s nomination, farmers around the state openly criticized the choice because Vilsack was NOT a farmer.)

And it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is best served by someone who isn’t a farmer. Why? Because the “farming” and “agriculture” are only small components of the USDA’s responsibilties. Indeed, the department is charged with an incredible range of jobs and with developing and carrying out policies for food aid (including foodstamps), conservation, food safety, nutrition, food-related research, rural development, and the like.

So it’s useful to have someone like Vilsack. After all, agriculture is part of what happens here in Iowa, but it sure as hell isn’t the only thing. (Only Connecticut, for example, has a larger insurance industry.) Iowa is also a state that contains the richest soil in the world (I’m sitting on some of it as I type this), as well as some of the nation’s worst poverty. But Iowa isn't just farms, and so Vilsack also knows that the U.S. consists of cities and rural areas that need to figure out how to live in a digital world.

And I gather from yesterday’s news reports that yes, he’s learned how to use email (something he was rather proud of not knowing while he was governor, sad to say) and owns a blackberry. He’s also, as I noted yesterday, a decent human being. Yes, he’s a politician; don’t let his mild-mannered demeanor fool you. But -- Blagojevich, he ain’t.