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Changes in Leadership

With the inauguration of President-elect Obama Jan. 20 comes a change in leadership for many of the agencies that regulate and monitor the produce industry. This change comes as no surprise to the produce associations in Washington, D.C. – they were preparing for working with a new administration regardless, said Kathy Means, vice president, government relations, for the Produce Marketing Association.

“We knew there was going to be a change in the administration,” Means said, adding, “this will be a bigger change than perhaps if McCain had won.”

Obama’s first efforts will be to address the economic conditions, but the new administration may be good news for the produce industry as a whole.

“When you look at the party affiliations, Democrats have been more for health and nutrition, which bodes well for the industry,” Means said.

Some of those opportunities for the industry include passage of key bills coming before Congress, she said. The Child Nutrition Act, which includes the school lunch program, and the Highway Reauthorization Bill are two pieces of legislation that can improve access or reduce operating costs. Implementation of the Farm Bill, which included more funding for specialty crops, would also benefit under the Democratic leadership. However, Means warns, with the economic downturn and an administration that wants a balanced budget, some spending will have to be addressed.

Joe Guenthner, an agricultural economist with the University of Idaho, said funding for specialty crops shouldn’t be affected much.

“The change in administration won’t have much impact on the potato industry. Although the political pendulum swung toward government intervention in markets, I don’t think that will happen in the potato market. We might see less interest in new trade agreements, but I doubt that old trade agreements will be removed.

“Increased spending for agricultural programs won’t be a high priority for the new administration or Congress. The split between spending for program crops and specialty crops will continue to depend on the political power of the various agricultural groups. I don’t think the 2008 election changed the situation,” Guenthner said.

The political landscape will change with new heads of various regulatory agencies. As of December, Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, had been named Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes FDA. The new commissioner of FDA likely will increase the enforcement of current regulations and push for greater traceability in the produce industry, Means said.

She went on to say the downside to a new administration could be greater regulation, but Guenthner said some of those being considered for other Cabinet positions have agricultural experience and would represent the industry.

“U.S. Senator Ken Salazar is reportedly being considered for the Secretary of Interior position. Sen. Salazar is a former Colorado potato farmer who has experience as a rancher, businessman and environmental/water lawyer. His understanding of agricultural and environmental issues is a valuable asset to the potato industry whether he remains in the Senate or becomes a member of President Obama’s Cabinet.”

“President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture could impact the potato industry. One candidate is former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who is a strong supporter of biofuels. Another candidate is Tom Buis, current president of the National Farmers Union, and champion of small farmers.”

Guenthner said it’s businesses and the strengths of this country’s economy that will turn things around.

“In the United States, decisions by businessmen have more economic impact than decisions made by politicians,” he said. “Human capital is the key strength of the U.S. economy. I am confident that U.S. business owners, managers and workers will bring the economy out of the downturn.

“In agriculture, the economic success of a farm or ranch depends on things the operator can control and those that cannot be controlled. Among the uncontrolled factors, I think that weather is more important than who gets elected.”

Originally posted Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

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