For someone who was essentially a non-believer, Undersecretary of Agriculture J.B. Penn has become a high-profile defender of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

Before he joined the Bush administration at the No. 3 spot in the Agriculture Department last year, Penn was strongly critical of the farm program provisions of the 1996 farm bill or Freedom to Farm.

Speaking at USDA's 2001 Outlook Conference, Penn talked about the “disconnect” between the $22 billion in ad hoc disaster payments that were supposed to bolster the ag economy and the fact that commodity prices continued to decline after those payments began in 1998.

Penn's subsequent appointment as undersecretary of farm and foreign agricultural services was thought to be a signal that USDA would be taking a “less kinder, less gentler” approach to farm policy.

That isn't how things worked out. Instead of holding the line on farm spending, as many expected, USDA and Bush administration officials endorsed the House Agriculture Committee farm bill's $73.5 billion increase, and Penn became a leading proponent.

Within days of President Bush's signing the bill, Penn spoke at a USDA briefing for foreign reporters, many of whose governments were trashing the new farm bill.

Asked about what would have happened had Congress not passed a new farm bill, Penn noted how U.S. farmers were being squeezed by increasing costs and rising land prices. “I think we would have had a considerable economic shakeout across farm country had we not seen a continuation of something on the order of the 1996 farm bill and something perhaps a little more, as occurred in this bill.”

Penn also has been USDA's point man on domestic media criticism, responding to such articles as a particularly caustic column by former Clinton administration economic adviser Laura D'Andrea Tyson in Business Week.

After first pointing out that Tyson's comparisons on the farm bill costs failed to recognize increased spending on disaster payments, Penn took issue with her criticism of the new law's trade provisions.

“Tyson's comments on the effects of the farm bill and international trade negotiations seem a bit overstated,” he said. “Our resolve to obtain further trade liberalization in agriculture and food production has not changed one bit. We will continue to provide vigorous leadership throughout the new trade negotiations.”

He also noted that both the European Union's and Japan's domestic support ceilings under the World Trade Organization agreements are significantly higher than those for the United States, a point Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has also made in her speeches.

(Interestingly, neither Business Week nor any of the other publications have had much to say after Veneman, Penn and other USDA spokesman have pointed out errors in their criticism of the new law.)

Does Penn's standing up for the farm bill signal a change in his thinking or the fact that he is a good team player whose ties to the farm community — he is an Arkansas State University graduate with a degree in agriculture — make him more sympathetic to farmers?

Penn hasn't said. For now, most growers are just glad he's on their side.

flaws@primediabusiness.com