President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of agriculture said Wednesday that if he is confirmed he will work to boost the economies of farm communities, promote nutritious foods and help poor families put meals on the table.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who has won wide support from farm groups and farm-state members of Congress, told the panel that the Agriculture Department faces "historic challenges," mostly brought on by economic woes.
"Farmers and ranchers experience volatile markets while credit tightens," Vilsack said. "Small towns and rural communities continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."
If confirmed, Vilsack would oversee the nation's nutrition programs, including food stamps, which make up a large part of the department's budget. Those programs are facing increased need in recent months as the economy has stumbled.
Vilsack said that in a "powerful, rich country" like the United States that "none of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry."
Despite problems in rural communities, the agricultural sector has fared better than many industries in recent years as the demand for renewable fuels has helped fuel record crop prices. But those prices have dropped in recent months.
"All of these are serious challenges that require a compelling new vision for the department," Vilsack said.
The farm-friendly panel has voiced few qualms with Vilsack, who was chief executive of one of the country's largest crop-producing states for eight years. The Democratic chairman of the committee is Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, one of Vilsack's biggest supporters.
Vilsack has been friendly with corporate agriculture and was a mainstream choice for the post. But his nomination disappointed some activists who would like to overhaul the way the government's agricultural programs are run.
One of Vilsack's first priorities as secretary would likely be putting a $290 billion farm bill, enacted last year, into place. President George W. Bush, backed by fiscal conservatives, said the bill was wasteful and too costly. He vetoed the bill but Congress, with Obama's support, overrode the veto.
Vilsack has been a champion of corn-based ethanol, a central part of his short-lived campaign for president in two years ago, and endorsed tax breaks for the ethanol industry. Renewable fuels policy, along with subsidies for that industry, is expected to be a top issue for the incoming secretary.
The former governor also made an overture to a growing number of food groups that have pushed for government support of more locally grown, environmentally friendly and nutritious foods, saying he will seek to work "with those who seek programs and practices that lead to more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way."
Vilsack is expected to push Obama's pledge to trim some wasteful farm subsidies, a position that Harkin and many other Midwestern members have endorsed. Southern lawmakers have long blocked lowering subsidy limits, however, as Southern rice and cotton crops require more investment.
The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, has said he hopes that Vilsack will listen to concerns from all parts of the country in his tenure at Agriculture but has otherwise voiced no objections to his nomination, saying at the hearing that he hopes it moves quickly.
In financial disclosure documents released by the Senate Agriculture Committee, Vilsack stated that he receives around $7,500 a year from an Agriculture Department program that pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land.
The former governor told department ethics officials in a Jan. 8 letter that he plans to continue receiving that money but would not participate in matters that would have a direct effect on his interest in the Davis Co., Iowa property or on his payments.
A letter from the Office of Government Ethics to the committee said the agency believes Vilsack is in compliance with laws and regulations governing conflicts of interest.