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I’ve said it before.
We just can’t win for losing.
Back in the early days of television in our little house on the river bottom, Dad always came in for lunch at straight-up 12 noon. Generally the TV was on and tuned into WOW in Omaha for the 12 o’clock news and weather, including a 10-minute farm report with Arnold Peterson, the ag news director. After price quotes for grains and livestock, Arnold gave us the lowdown in five minutes or less. But if news clips of came on of our secretaries of Agriculture at the time – Eisenhower’s Ezra Taft Benson or Kennedy’s Orville Freeman – Dad’s quick response was always the same.
“Turn that thing off.”
Dad was fed up with politics and politicians, but never more than when it came to agriculture. Low prices and weather coalesced into the perfect storm of depressed profits he knew way too much about on a personal level. A favorite quote of his from the dawn of the Great Depression summarized it all:
“Prosperity is just around the corner.”
That quote of poor Herbert Hoover, the whipping boy for under-regulated investment bankers, was always followed by a gruff harrumph and another mouthful of mashed potatoes.
I have memories of my own, like the confident call by Nixon’s ag secretary, Earl Butz, to plant fencerow to fencerow. Then there were Reagan’s Richard Lyng and Bush the elder’s Clayton Yeutter; their solution was farmer austerity accompanied by little in the way of empathy.
I actually liked Dan Glickman, who served during the Clinton administration. He helped launch one of the most generous and lucrative of farm price support programs ever. He also allowed a recall of the pork checkoff tax. That checkoff had failed to deliver on promises to improve profits for pork producers while simultaneously fueling a firestorm of vertically integrated contract production and disastrous profit losses for family farmers.
Upon taking office after Glickman, Ann Venneman of the George W. Bush administration recalled the recall saying that producer taxes, like the pork checkoff tax, were irretrievable government speech.
It went downhill from there.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that even in what I consider friendly administrations, grassroots farmers seldom get their hearts’ desire. Subsidies come and go, but independent, individual farmers and ranchers, free to flourish amid fair markets and opportunity for all, are increasingly a dream unfulfilled. So now it’s time for another administration to choose who will be the 31st secretary of Agriculture.
The president-elect has been all over the board with his cabinet picks so far. A surgeon is nominated to rule over Housing and Urban Development. A general would run defense, but not before Congress changes the law so that he can. And the pick for public education wants privatized schools.
Maybe that’s why I’m a little nervous about Agriculture.
So who makes sense as The Trump pick for Ag sec? It could be someone from integrated agriculture, like the CEO of Monsanto, Hugh Grant (age 58). If Bayer scrapes the money together to buy him out, he might need a job. Long-time supporter and state Ag Director Sonny Perdue (age 69) of Georgia has been mentioned. Bill Northey (age 57), Ag director of Iowa jumped on the Trump band wagon early. He’s a possibility. Rick Perry (age 67) of Texas has the most political experience. He was both governor and Ag commissioner in Texas and has run for president twice, once against Trump himself.
Tweet this: There’s a sleeper no one has mentioned. He’s young. He has a deep and broad education, and he’s not a government insider. And he comes from a state more rural than most where race horses, tobacco, and coal are as sacred as corn is to Iowa.
And he’s a Republican. There’s something there for everyone.
His name is Ryan Quarles from the great state of Kentucky.
Drain that swamp!
Ryan comes from a farming family (tobacco growers) that has been in Central Kentucky for more than 200 years. He was an active member of 4-H and FFA youth programs. While still in high school he won the state tractor driving contest. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2006 with undergraduate degrees in political science, agricultural economics, and public service, and two master’s degrees in diplomacy and international commerce. He earned a master’s degree in higher education from Harvard University in 2009 while also attending Harvard Law School. And he attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Other alumni of the Kennedy school are Bill O’Reilly, Ban Ki-moon, and Robert Zoellick.
Ryan is qualified, he’s an outsider, and he is a member of the Republican Agriculture Commissioners Committee. (I’m not sure what that is, but it sounds good.) He has some experience in politics on the state level. But most striking of all is his education, the depth of which is not apparent among most state Ag commissioners who have been mentioned for the job and who are steeped more in the political than the practical.
Quarles is featured with other state Ag commissioners on a website for Ag America that advocates supporting and protecting America’s agricultural future.
This is interesting. Also featured on the same website is Trump multimillionaire Ag advisor Charles Herbster, the Falls City, Nebraska, farmer who owns Conklin Company, which makes, among other things, probiotics, roof coating, and motor oil. Herbster is listed as member of the Ag America steering committee. (I’m not sure what that is but that sounds good, too.)
Why do I like Quarles for USDA? Maybe I wouldn’t if I knew more about him. That’s pretty much true of me and most politicians. But I like the sound of his education. I like that he knows something about the law. And I like the fact that he has generational roots in Kentucky the same way I have my roots in Missouri. I like the fact that at his young age, 33, (Paul Ryan is 46) he might not be as beholden to corporate ag as some who are my age might. And while I’m not so naive as to think corporate ties anchored in USDA will ever go away, I’d like to think that a new generation, regardless of politics, will be forward looking enough to see a future for more people farming for themselves, not fewer.
Especially if their leader knows how to drive a tractor.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union.