The last time I wrote in less than glowing terms about a candidate for a particular job, he was named secretary of agriculture. So it's with some reluctance that I say I don't think Chuck Hassebrook would be a good choice for deputy secretary.
Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyon, Neb., is a top contender for the No. 2 post at USDA, according to an article by Washington reporter Jerry Hagstrom in Congress Daily. Hagstrom was writing about the speculation surrounding the sub-cabinet positions to be filled at USDA.
Besides Hassebrook, the leading candidates include Karen Ross, president of the California Winegrape Growers Association, and Jim Miller, chief of staff and chief economist at the National Farmers Union. Miller was North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad's top advisor during the 2008 farm bill debate.
I've been reading Chuck Hassebrook's articles for years, and I know he is deeply concerned about the future of rural America and of family farmers. He grew up on a farm and his family still farms around his home town in Platte Center, Neb.
To Hassebrook, a family farmer is someone growing 300 to 400 acres alone or with one or two hired hands. The Center for Rural Affairs and other interest groups have been lobbying Congress to limit farm payments to those size operations for years.
Most of the latter say the 2008 farm bill didn't go far enough in disadvantaging farmers whose basic “crime” was getting larger so they could stay in business. As Hassebrook wrote in an open letter to Vilsack in the CRA's January newsletter:
“Make federal policy work for family-size farms. No need is more obvious, or more politically difficult.
“But you have the backing of a president with a mandate for change. Seize it and move quickly.”
Hassebrook urged Vilsack to act on his own where possible, closing loopholes by requiring farm program payment recipients to work and manage the farm or share rent it to someone who does. “That will stop mega farmers from forming phony partnerships with 20 paper partners to receive 20 times the legal limit.”
What he refuses to recognize — we've had this debate before — is the larger farming operations he denigrates are the norm in the Sunbelt and probably more the rule in states like Nebraska and in Iowa. (Iowa probably has more 2,000-acre farming operations than the 300- to 400-acre ones by far.)
Why should you care? The deputy secretary plays a much bigger role in overseeing the Agriculture Department today than in the 1970s and 1980s, and deputy secretaries can become acting secretaries for extended periods of time as did Chuck Conner in 2007 and 2008.
Besides being the acting secretary, Conner was former President Bush's hatchet man on payments limits until Congress finally said enough and overrode two vetoes of the farm bill. Chuck Hassebrook has been making those same arguments for 35 years.