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Heat-Seeking Office Seeker

An obscure would-be bureaucrat raises the ire of rural Montanans

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Rural activists, minority leaders and conservationists, buoyed by new Democratic control in the U.S. Senate, are attempting to derail the appointment of an Iowa businessman to be undersecretary of rural development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Thomas Dorr, 54, was nominated for the post by President George W. Bush. But Dorr, who runs a 3,000-acre, multimillion-dollar farming operation in northwest Iowa, is drawing high-intensity fire for his comments on racial and religious diversity and the future of family farms. Some critics are calling him the “poster boy” for corporate agriculture because of his unabashed support for farming conglomerates.

Dorr, a Bush contributor and farm policy advisor in the president’s election campaign, first drew national recognition in 1998, when he told The New York Times that he envisions creating a technologically advanced 225,000-acre megafarm in Iowa, an agricultural monolith that could require its own railroad spurs to haul out a larder of livestock and produce.

The factory farm, Dorr said, would be broken into a least three “pods” run by separate managers. Central control, however, would be retained by the conglomerate’s headquarters, where a computer network would keep track of output, field conditions, irrigation demands and other data.

“We thought feudalism ended in the Middle Ages, but Dorr wants to bring it back,” says Rhonda Perry, a hog farmer and member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, one of more than 100 nonprofit groups fighting the nomination from around the country. “The only role for farmers in Tom Dorr’s vision is as serfs on their own land, providing labor for the giant agribusiness operations.”

Dorr, a former member of the Iowa Board of Regents and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago board of directors, dug himself deeper in December 1999 while addressing a seminar sponsored by Iowa State University’s Department of Agronomy. According to a transcript of the proceeding, Dorr told participants that economic success in agricultural Iowa is apparently tied to being white and Christian.

“I know this is not at all the correct environment to say this,” Dorr was quoted as saying, “but I think you ought to perhaps go out and look at what you perceive to be the three most successful rural economic environments in [Iowa], and I’m not talking about those with metropolitan areas. But I would submit to you that they’re probably the three most successful. The three would be Sioux County, Carroll County and Lyon County. And you’ll notice when you get to looking at them that they’re not particularly diverse. They’re very diverse in their economic growth, but they’re very focused, uh, have been very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background and there’s something there that has enabled them to succeed and to succeed very well.”

If appointed to the undersecretary post, Dorr would head programs that offer family farmers low-interest loans, grants and technical assistance to keep them on their land, designate impoverished rural communities as “empowerment” and “enterprise” zones for federal funding help, and help blue-highway citizens find and keep affordable housing. Not the domain of someone who equates agriculture with amassing a potential fortune, critics contend.

Dorr’s secretary, reached at the nominee’s Pine Grove farm, says all press inquires about her boss are being referred to the White House Press Office. According to published reports, Dorr thinks he’s being misunderstood. Administration officials, including Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, are praising him as an “innovative” and “visionary” thinker. “He has a tendency to talk theoretically and to get people to think,” Veneman told reporters earlier this month.

But pressure against the nominee is clearly mounting. Along with a critical outpouring from scores of public interest groups, 18 members of the Congressional Black Caucus signed a letter in May asking that Dorr’s confirmation at least be delayed. The letter notes that the Agriculture Department has already had its share of controversy over how it treats minority farmers, and additional turmoil is not needed.

“Given the past record of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on matters of ethnic diversity and civil rights, we are shocked to learn that [Dorr] would express the belief that ethnic diversity is an impediment to economic growth,” the letter says. “Mr. Dorr’s nomination for a position that would require him to work in counties with extensive ethnic diversity makes it difficult for us to understand, much less reconcile ourselves to, such seemingly insensitive statements.”

“Thomas Dorr is bad news for independent farmers and ranchers,” adds Montana activist and farmer Helen Waller, a spokeswoman for the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council. “His plans for rural development are based on a system that bypasses the value of community and exploits people and the land.” Another Montana-based group joining the anti-Dorr campaign is the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a broad coalition of ranchers, farmers and other rural interests from six different states.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing to determine Dorr’s fate. But Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has made it clear that there will be adequate grilling. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), a member of the panel, did not answer a request for comment about the nomination before press time.

“Dorr’s program is to put small farmers out of business,” charges George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and member of the National Farm Action Campaign. “We’re not going to sit back and let the Bush administration shove its vision of corporate agriculture down our throats. We’re going to put maximum pressure on the new leadership in the Senate to make sure Dorr’s nomination is dead on arrival.”

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