The Senate confirmed Mark Keenum, former chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and agricultural economist with Mississippi State University, to be undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services.

Keenum, a farm policy expert who has played a key role in the writing of the last three farm bills, replaces another Mid-Southerner, J.B. Penn, who resigned in August after serving five years as undersecretary.

Secretary Mike Johanns welcomed the confirmation of Keenum, who will become the third highest-ranking official in the Agriculture Department behind Johanns and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner.

“I’d like to thank the Senate for moving quickly to confirm Mark Keenum as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services,” Johanns said in a statement. “Mark’s broad experience in agriculture, both in the field and in Washington will be of great benefit to USDA and the people we serve.

“Mark has built a reputation as an honest, hard-working and insightful person. These qualities will serve him well in his new role overseeing both our domestic farm support programs and our global efforts relating to agricultural trade.”

The secretary noted that Keenum followed in his grandfather and father’s footsteps as a USDA employee in Mississippi before coming to Washington to serve as Sen. Cochran’s agricultural aide.