President-elect Barack Obama has named former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to be his secretary of agriculture, saying he will be “fiercely protective of family farms but also forward looking on how we can develop cellulosic ethanol and harness wind and solar power to boost rural economies.”

Obama, who also announced the selection of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to be secretary of interior, indicated both will be at the forefront of his administration’s efforts to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil at a time when OPEC appears to be attempting to ratchet up energy prices again.

“Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in the oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home,” Obama said at a press conference announcing his choices. “That’s the kind of leader I want in my cabinet.” (Moments before Obama’s announcement of his latest cabinet choices, OPEC said it planned to cut production by 2.2 million barrels per day.)

The president-elect said he expects Vilsack and Salazar to help establish new directions for their departments, a reference to the change his campaign said he would bring to America once he takes office Jan. 20.

“As our next secretary of agriculture, Tom will not only help insure that rural America has a true partner in implementing the farm bill, but that Washington is looking out for everyone from the small family farms that are feeding our communities to the large farms that are feeding the world,” Obama said.

Although he does not have an agricultural background, Vilsack said he understands the challenges farmers in Iowa and other parts of the nation are facing during the economic downturn that will confront the Obama administration.

“As a small-town lawyer, I had the responsibility of helping farm families during tough economic times,” said Vilsack, who began his political career as mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 1987. “I know these people. America’s farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us every day.”

Vilsack, who in 1998 became the first Democrat to be elected governor of Iowa in 30 years, served two terms before running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007. He later threw his support to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton before campaigning for Obama.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the leading supporters of Vilsack for the secretary’s job, praised the selection.

“Tom Vilsack has a strong record in Iowa on building opportunities in renewable energy, conservation, food and nutrition, experience that will serve him well as secretary of agriculture,” said Harkin. “With our economy in a downturn, Tom Vilsack knows how to bring change that will rebuild rural economies and keep them vibrant.”

Harkin, who was named to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry again on Monday (Dec. 15), said he anticipates that Vilsack will have little problem in winning approval for his nomination from the committee.

Obama said he wants Vilsack to return USDA to the days when it was known as the “people’s department.

“When President Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture nearly a century and a half ago, he called it the people’s department for it was meant to serve the interests of those who lived off the land,” he noted. “I know it will be the people’s department once more when Tom is at the helm.”

Vilsack said the Department must be about the work of “improving profitability for farmers and ranchers and expanding opportunities in the rural communities in which they live. It must aggressively promote policies and programs that support sustainable practices to conserve and preserve our precious natural resources, our land, our water and our forests.”

Obama said Vilsack has been a leader among governors when it comes to clean energy, and he credited the Iowa governor with the fact that his state seems to be holding its own during the current difficult economic times.

“When it comes to agriculture, obviously, if you don’t know agriculture, you’re not going to be the governor of Iowa,” said Obama in an apparent reference to complaints about Vilsack’s lack of an agricultural background.

Vilsack served as Iowa’s governor until 2007 when the nation’s leading corn-producing state was building the majority of its 42 ethanol plants. Since then, he has practiced law in Des Moines and has written a series of op-ed articles advancing the cause of renewable fuels.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Corn Growers Association, two of the nation’s largest farm groups, praised both nominations, saying Vilsack and Salazar have demonstrated leadership on agriculturally related issues.

“During his tenure as Iowa’s governor, Gov. Vilsack was an ardent supporter of furthering the use of renewable fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and wind, as well as an advocate for biotechnology,” said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. “He has been a strong proponent of international trade and expanding our export markets.

“Sen. Salazar is also uniquely qualified and experienced to serve as Secretary of the Interior. He serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has been a strong proponent of expanding the development of renewable fuels.”

“As a former two-term Governor from a state where corn plays such an important role, Vilsack has demonstrated a commitment and deep knowledge of issues ranging from ethanol to conservation,” said NCGA Chairman Ron Litterer, a corn and hog farmer from Greene, Iowa.

Litterer noted that Vilsack has chaired the Governors Ethanol Coalition, Governors Biotechnology Partnership, and the National Governors Association’s Natural Resources Committee, which handles agriculture and energy policies, along with chairing the Democratic Governors Association in 2004.

“Governor Vilsack understands the opportunities and challenges facing the corn industry today,” NCGA President Bob Dickey said. “We feel he is a wise choice to lead the United States Department of Agriculture and look forward to working with him.”

Vilsack was one of the first candidates mentioned for the secretary’s post following the Nov. 4 election, but had since indicated he did not think he would be the nominee. The president-elect was asked during his press conference what had happened since Vilsack had been led to believe he would not be the secretary.

“Well, I don’t know who led him to believe that,” said Obama. “Whoever did, obviously, was misinformed, because here he stands.”

email: flaws@farmpress.com