Mark Keenum, veteran staff member for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and a major player in the last three farm bill debates, has been nominated for the No.3 post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

President Bush named Keenum, a graduate and former assistant professor of economics at Mississippi State University, to fill the post of undersecretary of agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. He would replace J.B. Penn, who resigned last August.

As undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Keenum would oversee the operations of the Farm Service Agency, the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Risk Management Agency. He would also serve as executive vice president of the Commodity Credit Corp.

Over the years, Keenum has become known as Cochran’s alter ego, often standing in for the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at farm meetings throughout Mississippi.

He is also considered a farm bill expert, having helped write the last three farm laws in his position as agricultural aide and then chief of staff to Cochran when the latter was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Keenum, a native of Sunflower County in Mississippi, joined the staff of Sen. Cochran after working at an agricultural economist with the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service. He was named Cochran’s chief of staff in 1998.

“As an adviser to me on agricultural issues, he worked closely on the 1990, 1996 and the 2002 farm bills, and this experience will benefit the administration greatly in preparation for the reauthorization of the next farm bill,” Cochran said in a statement.

“His experience on Capitol Hill and his background in agricultural economics make him an outstanding nominee to be an undersecretary of agriculture. I have confidence in his professional ability and in him personally. Mark is an excellent choice for this position, and I look forward to voting on his nomination soon.”

“When it comes to being of service to agriculture, there are very few individuals who can say they’ve done more than Mark Keenum,” said David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau. “As a member of Sen. Cochran’s staff, Mark has always been available to Mississippi agricultural leaders to discuss issues.

“He frequently attends meetings with farmers where he discusses the latest issues and listens to their concerns. He has been an invaluable person for Mississippi agriculture and an extremely effective advocate for the farmers of Mississippi.”

He and his wife, the former Rhonda Newman, live in Alexandria, Va., and are the parents of four children. Rhonda Keenum, also a graduate of Mississippi State, currently serves as the White House Director of Public Liaison.

email: flaws@farmpress.com