President Bush has nominated former North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer to be secretary of agriculture, once again reaching outside mainstream agriculture to select a relative unknown to be the administration's chief agricultural spokesman.
Schafer would replace Mike Johanns, who resigned as agriculture secretary in September to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Chuck Hegel of Nebraska. Johanns was serving as Nebraska's governor when the president nominated him to be secretary in 2005.
“Ed Schafer is the right choice to fill this post,” the president said in a White House Web cast. “He was a leader on agricultural issues during his eight years as the governor of North Dakota. He worked to open new markets for North Dakota farmers and ranchers by expanding trade with China.”
The president said Schafer also oversaw the development of the state's agricultural biofuels industry, helped families recover from natural disasters — including drought, fires and floods — and pioneered innovative programs to increase economic opportunity in rural communities.
Spokesmen for the North Dakota Farm Bureau said they thought Schafer's nomination would be good for farmers and ranchers across the country.
“The governor understands agriculture,” said Sandy Clark, public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau. “Gov. Schafer is a businessman, and he will understand the business of agriculture in this country and agriculture in the global market.”
Clark said Schafer has been involved in lobbying for farm bills and trade agreements at the national level. If confirmed, he said, the governor will bring a keen sense of the importance of agriculture to states such as North Dakota.
“Gov. Schafer comes from a smaller farming state compared to Illinois, California, and Texas,” said Clark. “It's to our advantage he comes from a less populated state because agriculture is the number one economic engine in North Dakota — always has been and always will be.
“Don't underestimate the importance of North Dakota agriculture on the national level.
“We're the nation's No. 1 producer of durum and spring wheat, oats, barley, beans, peas, and more. On the national level, North Dakota ranks about ninth in farm exports.”
During his term as governor, a lot of work was done in the value-added agriculture sector in the state, said Brian Kramer, who also works for the North Dakota Farm Bureau. The Dakota Growers Pasta plant in Carrington, N.D., and other value-added companies were started during his tenure.
“I was a bit surprised — not that he lacked the credentials but I didn't know he was on the radar screen with the president for this position,” said Kramer. “Gov. Schafer definitely has the capabilities. As governor, he was always approachable, very outgoing. He tries to weigh both sides to come to a compromise situation.”
Kramer said Gov. Schafer organized a North Dakota Wetlands Taskforce designed to bring sportsmen's groups, wildlife interests and agriculture together to deal with wetlands issues in the prairie pothole region.
“It was difficult to come to a consensus on the issue, but we understood where each other was coming from,” said Kramer, who served on the task force. “This points out his ability to bring people together and try to compromise. I think he'll use this effectively as the next secretary of agriculture.”
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a frequent critic of the Bush administration's farm policy, said he welcomed Schafer's nomination to the top post at USDA as a fellow North Dakotan.
“I hope he will support this farm bill,” said Conrad, referring to the legislation reported out by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Oct. 25. “I look forward to speaking with him about his views on the Food and Energy Security Act currently under consideration.”
In Washington, Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said his members hope Schafer will be a strong leader for USDA, particularly during the time the Agriculture Department is likely to be implementing a new farm bill.
“Mr. Schafer's background in small business issues should give him an understanding of the economic challenges our farmers and ranchers face,” said Stallman, a farmer from Texas. “As a former governor of North Dakota, Schafer knows the issues important to rural America.”
According to a White House briefing paper, Schafer is the grandson of Danish immigrants who farmed throughout their lives. His father founded a household cleaning and personal care products company, where Schafer began working in the mailroom at age 14.
Schafer earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of North Dakota and an MBA from the University of Denver. Returning after his graduation, Gov. Schafer eventually became president of the company, a position in which he served from 1978 to 1985.
He served as governor of North Dakota from 1992 to 2000. He launched a successful pilot project to revive rural communities by using technology to deliver education, healthcare, and economic development.