Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said he will do all that is in his power to “administer a robust safety net and create real and meaningful opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers to compete” if confirmed as President-elect Obama’s agriculture secretary.

He also pledged to implement the 600 provisions and 15 titles of the 2008 farm bill “promptly and consistent with congressional intent” and to leverage the financial commitment of the farm bill and any stimulus bills to help rural America.

Vilsack, an attorney who once did tax returns for farmers in the rural community of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, deftly fielded a series of fairly routine questions from members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday (Jan. 14).

Perhaps the toughest question he faced came before the committee hearing when reporters for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register asked him about the $7,500 in annual Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments Vilsack and his wife, Christie, have received on farmland they own in southeast Iowa.

Vilsack told USDA officials he planned to continue receiving the payments because, otherwise, he would have to break his contract with the government and reimburse USDA for all the payments he has received or about $60,000.

It was clear from the beginning of the hearing that Vilsack was not likely to face the kind of questioning some other Obama administration nominees have met when they appeared before Senate committees.

“I cannot think of a better choice for someone to be secretary of agriculture than Gov. Vilsack,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin in welcoming his fellow Iowan to the confirmation hearing.

“He (Vilsack) knows production agriculture and what is needed to promote profitability and a better future, including for beginning farmers and ranchers,” said Harkin. “He gained a lot of experience the hard way — representing farmers in wrenching financial situations as a county seat lawyer during the farm crisis of the 1980s.”

Harkin was referring to Vilsack’s beginnings as an attorney in his wife’s hometown of Mt. Pleasant, which is in the southeastern tip of Iowa. Vilsack, a native of Pittsburgh, ran for mayor of Mt. Pleasant after the then-mayor was shot in the late 1980s. He subsequently served two terms as governor of Iowa and mounted a brief campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007.

In his testimony, Vilsack noted that the last Iowan asked the serve as secretary of agriculture was Henry Wallace, “who served with extraordinary distinction during a period of historic challenges” in the Depression era.

“Today, our country and the Department of Agriculture again face historic challenges. Farmers and ranchers experience volatile markets while credit tightens. Small towns and rural communities across the country continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with national and global economies.”

These challenges, he said, require a compelling new vision for the Agriculture Department with the attention, dedication and leadership to make it happen.

“The president-elect has called upon each of us to meet these challenges. If confirmed, I pledge to work with all the energy I have to do my part to make sure the Agriculture Department does its part; to do its part in administering a robust safety net and create real and meaningful opportunities for farmers and ranchers to compete.”

He said he also intends to work to place America in the forefront of efforts to aggressively address energy independence and global climate change and enhance the safety of its food supply and reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses.

“I am under no illusions about the difficulty we face,” he noted. “While I recognize the commitment that Congress has made in the passage of the 2008 farm bill, USDA’s job is to implement that far-ranging piece of legislation promptly and consistently with congressional intent. If confirmed, I commit to work immediately to implement the 600 provisions and 15 titles of the farm bill, including prompt implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the disaster payment program.”

Vilsack didn’t refer to his predecessor, Ag Secretary Ed Schafer, but the latter has been criticized for failing to implement the farm bill in a timely manner as Congress intended for it to be implemented. Several senators asked Vilsack if he would follow the intent of Congress when he takes office.

Neither Vilsack nor committee members made more than a passing reference to what may be one of the more contentious issues he faces — writing the rules for the new payment limit rules contained in the 2008 law.

President-elect Obama has said that he favors tightening the rules for farm program payments if, in fact, such programs are being abused.

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