What the heck is going on in the Agriculture Department?

Not since Earl Butz was head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the office created so much strife.

The week of July 26 was a particularly tough one for current Secretary Tom Vilsack. Early in the week, USDA employee Shirley Sherrod was fired for comments taken out of context and posted on Facebook, the “social utility,” which coincidently announced they had just hit the half-billion active-user mark.

It’s unsettling to know that unchecked social networking and news mongering has that much influence on the highest offices in the land — the president’s cabinet. Given ample motivation, virtually anyone can help their cause — or harm someone else’s — by a little creative editing, such as lifting 150 seconds of a 45-minute talk and, at the simple click of the “send” button, severely damage a reputation.

In the Vilsack-Sherrod incident, the damage was done well before the real story was fully vetted and the misguided charges of racial profiling withdrawn. It turns out Sherrod was a stellar employee in the department and had worked hard to secure aid for struggling farmers, particularly in the southern states, while working for a non-profit group in Georgia.

Vilsack was reprimanded for the hasty firing. He apologized, and then offered Sherrod another job. Even President Obama called to extend his regrets for the misguided brouhaha.

A composed and vilified Sherrod wisely said she’d have to think about whether she wants to work for the department again.

Can You Hear Me Now?

That same week, USDA staff was called to a House Livestock subcommittee hearing on proposed new rules on livestock marketing practices issued by USDA’s Grain Inspection and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). It was another bad day for Secretary Vilsack.

The subcommittee delivered a very strong, bipartisan message to USDA officials, noting the GIPSA rule had gone “far beyond congressional intent that was established in the 2008 farm bill.” Rarely seen in today’s contentious political climate, Democrat and Republican committee members stood united and rebuked the department for raising issues that had been considered and defeated in the writing of the livestock title of the 2008 farm bill.

As the hearing drew to a close, subcommittee chairman David Scott (D-GA), declared: “For you (Vilsack) and the department to arbitrarily go against the wishes and intent of Congress is serious. The least — the least — you can do is extend the comment period. To move ahead would be the worst thing that we could do for the industry and America.”

A friend in Washington observed, “In my nearly 30 years having been involved with ag committee hearings as either a staffer, USDA official, or in the private sector, this hearing ranks in the top two as far as the department being slapped down by the committee. I hope USDA got the message.”

Apparently, they did. The comment period was extended 90 days.

The whole fiasco makes one wonder — do these departmental administrators and their staffs read their policy manuals and familiarize themselves with the programs they are charged with enforcing?

Apparently not. Read on.

Botched Assignment

Another bungled assignment hit a little closer to home. You may remember the concerns filed with Mr. Vilsack’s office over the naming of pork producers to the National Pork Board this spring. Presumably, the department reviews the ranking of the candidates submitted by the Pork Industry Forum delegate body. While the secretary is free to choose anyone from the list of eight, Pork Act Delegate rankings have been honored with virtually no exceptions for 20 years.

Why, then, were two of the top five nominees bumped off the list?

At first, the secretary was mum about the issue. Recently, I’ve learned, his staff quietly admitted they did not fully understand the appointment procedures and used criteria known only to them. While focusing on ensuring that every type, style and method of raising pigs was represented, they eliminated a strong incumbent and the entire southeastern region from representation on the board.

I am not the least bit concerned about the qualifications of the new board members. Each had cleared the nominating committee’s interviewing process; all had admirably stated their wish to serve the pork industry at the will of the delegate body.

I mention it here simply because now more than ever we clearly need to keep a watchful eye on what’s going on in the hallowed halls and offices in the nation’s capitol.