Ready to fill upper rank vacancies The Senate has confirmed Ann Veneman as the first woman secretary of agriculture, in effect, promoting her from the No. 2 post at USDA in the old Bush administration to the top spot in the new.

Veneman, an attorney and a native of California who grew up on a peach farm, said her first order of business would be to begin filling vacancies in the upper ranks of the Agriculture Department.

"My first priority is to get personnel done," she told reporters on her first day on the job at the Jamie Whitten USDA headquarters building. "It's bare bones right now."

Before her confirmation, Veneman was already under pressure to name a deputy from a different part of the country than the Far West, preferably someone from the Midwest or the South, depending on who was making the recommendation.

"We asked her to make sure that we have someone with knowledge of the crops produced in the South - someone southerners can talk to," said Mark Keenum, chief of staff to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Keenum was referring to a courtesy call made by Veneman on Cochran prior to her confirmation hearing.

Midwesterners reportedly were also asking the new secretary to select someone with knowledge of crops in their area, pointing out the large number of farmers and acres farmed in the nation's mid-section.

There were reports that Keenum, a former agricultural economist with Mississippi State University, was under consideration for one of the top posts at USDA. Bill Hawks, a farmer and Republican state senator from Hernando, Miss., was also being mentioned as a possible nominee.

As Cochran's agricultural assistant before becoming his chief of staff, Keenum helped write the last two farm bills and played a major role in drafting the emergency assistance legislation in each of the last three years. Hawks owns and operates a 10,000-acre cotton, soybean, wheat and corn operation.

During her confirmation hearing, Veneman said she understands what farmers are experiencing.

"The hard-working men and women who provide our food and fiber have been tested by low prices, bad weather and other adversities," she said. "Government has appropriately lent a hand during these trying times, and it is important that we continue to focus our attention on trying to solve the challenges that face producers throughout the country."

For that reason, she said she would attempt to quickly fill the top vacancies at the Farm Service Agency, which administers the disaster assistance programs passed by Congress last fall.

House Agriculture Committee members complained in a press release that the Clinton administration should have completed the paperwork for 2000 crop year payments for producers before Christmas but did not.

Washington observers give Veneman credit for having an intimate knowledge of USDA. She first joined the Agriculture Department as an associate administrator for the Foreign Agriculture Service in 1986. In 1989, she was appointed deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs and, in 1991, deputy secretary.

On her first official day as secretary, she served as a tour guide for a member of the Bush transition team, pointing out which walls in the Whitten Building were real and which were false.

She surprised farm media reporters by holding an impromptu news conference in their offices on her first day, telling them that agriculture would receive considerable attention from the Bush administration.

"Farm issues are very important to the president," she said, pointing out that he was the first president-elect to hold an agriculture summit prior to taking office. Bush invited a number of farm organization leaders to his Crawford, Texas, ranch for a meeting prior to Christmas.

Veneman also said at her confirmation hearing that she would work with farmers and ranchers to help them seize more market opportunities at home and abroad.

"With 96 percent of the world's population living outside the United States, we need to expand trade and eliminate barriers to provide access for our products in what is an ever-expanding global economy," she noted.

"As we seek market growth, we should continue to search for new and alternative uses for our farm products and find ways to strengthen the competitive position of our producers."

The secretary said her staff was also reviewing the last-minute executive orders and rules issued by President Clinton in the final hours of his administration. President Bush signed an order putting all of those on hold shortly after he took the oath of office on Jan. 20.

The hold does not apply to rules for the disaster assistance signup that got underway at Farm Service Agency county offices on Jan. 18.