President-elect Barack Obama last week announced his nominations for two cabinet positions that are crucial to the dairy industry. He tapped former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to replace Susan Schwab as the U.S. Trade Representative.
As Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack will be charged with overseeing farm subsidies, land conservation, food safety and hunger programs. At USTR, Kirk will serve as the president's chief advisor, negotiator and spokesman on all trade issues.
A Democrat and popular two-term governor, Vilsack developed a reputation as a political moderate who balanced Iowa's state budget. He strongly supports the increased use of renewable fuels and was co-chair of a study that recommended a phasing out of subsidies for corn ethanol to be replaced by support for the next generation of biofuels.
"It's clear that Governor Vilsack understands business as well as agriculture, and we have every reason to believe that he will be receptive to the concerns of dairy processors," said Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO. "We share his commitment to strengthen the economic contribution our industry makes by advancing policies that support the growth of the U.S. dairy industry, expand access to international markets and create jobs on farms and in plants across the country."
Before his election as governor in 1998, Vilsack was mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and a state senator. He also served as head of the Democratic Leadership Council. If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack would be the first Iowan to lead USDA since the Depression era.
Ron Kirk hails from Texas, one of the top 10 dairy states in the country. He served as Texas Secretary of State in 1994 and mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2001. Throughout his political career, Kirk received support from the Dallas business community and the respect of centrist and conservative Texas Democrats, such as former Rep. Charlie Stenholm.
Currently a partner and lobbyist at the firm of Vinson & Elkins in Dallas, Kirk also serves on the board of directors of Dean Foods Company, one of IDFA's largest members. He is a consistent free-trade advocate who has spoken in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement on several occasions.
Kirk also supports normalized trade relations with China. Because the Pacific Rim is a target region for the U.S. dairy industry, Kirk's nomination could signal more growth opportunities for IDFA exporters.
In the next few weeks, President-elect Obama also is expected to fill important sub-cabinet positions at USDA, including the administrator of the Agricultural Market Service, who oversees the Federal Milk Marketing Orders, and the administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, who overseas both export promotion funding and the export subsidy programs.
One possible candidate for an undersecretary position is Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wollf, who recently concluded a round of visits in Washington, D.C., including a stop at IDFA to discuss dairy issues with Tipton.