Food & Drink » Food

Flash in the Pan

Vetting Obama’s top agriculture choices


The Obama transition team has yet to tap a nominee for secretary of agriculture. Nor does that appointment seem imminent, according to Jim Wiesemeyer, an economist who addressed the Food and Agriculture Policy Summit December 3 in Washington, D.C.

“My list [of contenders] keeps growing, which tells me they don’t know,” he said. “With this pantheon, I think USDA will be in the lower third of the cabinet secretaries announced.”

He said the list of candidates could “make you look very stupid” if you tried to guess the winner, although many pundits have made predictive punts.

“The Obama transition team considers former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack a near shoo-in for secretary of agriculture,” proclaimed the Washington Post, on Nov. 10. Soon after, The Hill reported that only two serious candidates remain: Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Ag committee, and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D. The following week, while the Denver Post was calling John Salazar, D-Colo., a Hispanic potato farmer, a serious contender, the Kansas Star made a case for Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Then the AP came out with its list: Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff; Tom Buis, president of National Farmers Union; former Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas; and former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, D-Ind.

From a sustainable agriculture perspective, these names range from uninspiring to scary. Vilsack, named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is a big corn, big subsidy, factory farm cheerleader. Peterson, who recently called organic consumers “dumb,” received more campaign donations from agribusiness—nearly $1 million—in 2008 than any other House candidate. Of Buis, a former staffer wrote, “If you want someone to throw sustainable agriculture under the tractor, he’s your guy.” Stenholm is a lobbyist for big agriculture interests. Wolff worked against the labeling of milk from hormonally enhanced cows. 

Sandlin, a 37-year-old conservative Democrat, is the most promising of this mediocre lot—if only because she has little baggage. Although, on forestry issues she has more of a GOP-style perspective, viewing national forests like big tree farms. That’s right, forestry—the U.S. Forest Service falls under the USDA, which doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is.

These possibilities don’t seem to be consistent with what then-Sen. Obama told me in an interview last May:

“As president, I would select a secretary of agriculture who shares my commitment to America’s farmers and ranchers, and the importance of developing the rural economy, yet is not afraid to challenge entrenched special interests in Washington.

“I would implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community supported farms.”

These words gave many foodies the audacity to hope that with the election of Obama—a guy who feeds his family organic food—long overdue change might actually come to the nation’s food system. Wiesemeyer, the economist, believes such hope might be well placed, especially if the transition team takes its time with the decision.

“Thus far he’s picked some pretty good, intelligent, pragmatic people,” Wiesemeyer told the audience of agribusiness bigwigs (the event was sponsored by Monsanto and the United Soybean Board). “Now when it gets to the lower third tier of picks, remember this is a president who promised change, and not much change so far at the cabinet level. So that ups the odds to me that once we get to the EPA level, the USDA level, I think we could well see a surprise, and more of a reformist. Now, that’s going to get the production agriculture people nervous…”

They might be even more nervous to learn about a letter, signed by an all-star group of sustainable food advocates and recently submitted to the transition team. The letter includes a wish list of change-oriented candidates, including: Gus Schumacher, Chuck Hassebrook, Sarah Vogel, Fred Kirschenmann, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Neil Hamilton (go to to learn more about these names, and to sign the letter).

One name that’s conspicuously absent from this ongoing name game is my own top choice for the post, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, an organic farmer and former president of the Montana Senate. Tester is pragmatic, hard working, a good listener and respected on both sides of the aisle. Alas, his office gave me a statement to the effect of “Jon feels he already has the best job he could want, working for Montana in the U.S. Senate.”

Could this just be a head-fake? Would Tester not feel duty-bound if asked by his president-elect to accept leadership of the USDA?

Wiesemeyer says that the last two agriculture secretaries were surprises on the mornings of the days they were announced. “When the transition team gets to the last third tier, that’s when they will look at the geographic mix of the cabinet announcements so far, the ethnicity of the mix, and that will go a long way in determining which of the 8–10 candidates they have vetted will get the nod.”

Ask Ari: Campaigning for canned meat

I’ve been having truly impressive results with an old homesteader preservation method: canned venison and elk meat. So far I’ve put up 35 pints, varying the recipe slightly with each batch, and each jar I’ve opened has been delicious, like the most succulent pot roast you’ve ever had. It’s also devoid of any “wild” flavor, and my most venison-averse friend licked her bowl the other night.

I season each jar with garlic, sliced onion and pickling salt. In some jars I add Serrano peppers, or Pickapeppa sauce. I plan on trying tomato paste, oregano and basil.

The canning process is a little tedious, but it’s very much worthwhile and can be a fine way to spend a winter evening with friends. To consume, just dump a jar in a saucepan, thicken the fluids with a roux and pour the meat and gravy over noodles, spuds or rice. Yum. Plus, it lasts forever. A pint feeds two people.

Anyway, keep up the good work and investigate canned meat if you have an inclination and access to a big pressure cooker.

—Scott McMillion

A: I should point out that Scott McMillion is a bad-ass journalist at the Bozeman Chronicle and frequent commentator on shows like “Frontline” and “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.” He’s also, reportedly, a lousy poker player.

I emailed Scott for the directions, which he graciously supplied with way more color commentary than I could—or should—print here. I followed his directions, experimenting with my own tasty combinations.

The best were:

—Oyster sauce and black pepper

—Red chile, bacon, oregano, garlic

—Roasted green chile, bacon, salt, pepper

—Pure mayonnaise (grapeseed oil Vegennaise, actually)

Next year I’ll do a story on this amazing method, which has completely changed my relationship with my meat. But if anyone has some meat they want to can right now, I can send you the instructions.

Send your food and garden queries to

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Add a comment