As the election nears, the farming community is speculating about whom a President Mitt Romney would choose to lead the Department of Agriculture.
If Congress does not complete its work on the farm bill in the lame-duck session, the head of USDA next year could exert considerable influence over the process. A Romney Agriculture secretary could also be charged with slimming down the department's operations, observers in the farming community said.
The secretary would also take control of an agency with one of the broadest portfolios, whose duties run the gamut from conservation to the Forest Service to energy, from crop commodity programs to organic certification, from food stamps to programs for women and infants, and from rural loans to broadband access.
Romney would look for a person who is "a good manager, that also is good at not just managing the issues and putting a budget together, but also, frankly, is a good, savvy politician," said Dale Moore, the American Farm Bureau Federation's deputy executive director for public policy. "Somebody that is good at building bridges across all lanes will be the winner, not just for a President Romney but for all of agriculture."
Two clear front-runners have emerged for the post. Most put Florida Agriculture Commissioner and former Rep. Adam Putnam at the top of their lists, but Charles Conner, a former deputy secretary at USDA and current president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, is a close second.
Putnam would be a somewhat unusual choice, in that he represents a state of specialty crops, such as citrus, sugar cane, tomatoes, peppers and cotton. In recent years, most Agriculture secretaries have hailed from states in the Corn Belt or California.
Divisions in agriculture typically occur more along regional lines than along traditional party lines. The choice of Putnam could ruffle some feathers in the Midwest and Great Plains, but that could be alleviated by choosing a deputy secretary from a Corn Belt state.
Moore said that in general, though, agricultural interests would support having Putnam in the top position.
"Everybody enjoyed working with Mr. Putnam when he was in Congress," Moore said. "He demonstrated leadership; he was kind of one of those overachievers. That would be the kind of candidate, the kind of nominee, that would have all of us in ag smiling."
Putnam was elected to the House in 2000, at the age of 26, and became one of the youngest members of Congress. In the 110th Congress, he was named chairman of the House Republican Conference, which, according to his biography, is the highest position a Florida lawmaker has ever held in Washington.
During his time in the House, he also sat on the Agriculture Committee, advocating for specialty crops and disaster assistance, and was named a conferee during the 2008 farm bill process.
Putnam was elected as Florida's agriculture commissioner in 2010 and has been serving since 2011. There, he has vocally criticized U.S. EPA for imposing numeric limits on nutrients and pollution entering waterways and was one of several Florida officials who filed a lawsuit against the agency for those limits.
While Putnam would likely accept the post of Agriculture secretary, he also has aspirations to be the governor of Florida in the coming years. Assuming Republican Gov. Rick Scott seeks a second term in 2014, Putnam's first opportunity to seek that post probably wouldn't come until 2018.
Given his background in specialty crops, the challenge for Putnam as Agriculture secretary would be to demonstrate a "clear understanding of the problems for agriculture and nutrition programs in the Corn Belt," said Vince Smith, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University and an adviser to the American Enterprise Institute.
Indiana-born Conner, who is a close second behind Putnam on most people's lists, would not have that issue, Smith said.
"Chuck Conner is more one of their own," he said. "He probably would have a stronger constituency among the Farm Bureau and other commodity groups concerned with crops largely raised in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and so on."
Conner is no stranger to USDA. From 2005 to 2007, he served as deputy secretary in the George W. Bush administration under then-Secretary Mike Johanns. When Johanns left to run successfully for a Senate seat in Nebraska, Conner had a brief stint as acting secretary of Agriculture before being replaced by former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, who served as Agriculture secretary for the remainder of the Bush administration.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said yesterday at a campaign stop in Idaho that the House will vote on a farm bill in the lame-duck session. But if Romney wins and Congress does not complete the farm bill in the session or extends the old one, as could still happen, Romney would do himself a favor by choosing Conner, who knows how to navigate the politics of farm bills and with whom to make deals, farming community observers said.
Although he has never served in Congress, or held any elective office, for that matter, Conner served as a staff member for the House Agriculture Committee for more than a decade and was very involved in the 1985 and 1990 farm bills, when most of the current conservation and rural programs were established.
Both Conner and Putnam are national chairmen on Romney's agriculture advisory team, along with Johanns, Western Growers President and CEO Thomas Nassif, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. The team also includes a "Who's Who"-type list of former Republican Agriculture secretaries, state commissioners and leaders of national farm groups.
For the past several weeks, Johanns has acted as Romney's voice on agricultural issues, filling in for him at a surrogate debate and harshly coming down on the Obama administration's policies. But although Johanns seems as if he would be a logical fit for Romney -- and has the experience of being a former Agriculture secretary -- the senator has indicated he has no intention to leave Congress.
Still, Johanns remains popular within the farming community: "I think his track record speaks for itself," Moore said.
On the other side of the coin, President Obama's Agriculture secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, has not given any indication that he intends to leave the post should the president win a second term.
The next secretary will need to balance politics with budget-cutting, and have management skills with an eye for litigation. He or she will also inherit one of the nation's largest lending institutions and will need to understand the role of research in agriculture.
"Inevitably, that person has to have very good political skills to navigate the inherent conflicts with which USDA deals because there are so many groups that have an interest in USDA's activities," Smith said.
Neither Putnam nor Johanns responded to requests for comment for this article, while a Conner spokesman declined to comment. Several agriculture groups also declined to comment.