Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns often begins speeches with an anecdote from his days on the campaign trail in Nebraska. The story talks about one of his first speeches as governor.
“As I'm making my way to the podium, everyone stood up and applauded,” Johanns says. “‘That's really very nice of you,’ I said, ‘but I haven't done anything yet.’ And somebody in the back yelled, ‘And when you do we won't be standing.’”
You can forgive southern farmers if few are standing these days. Most of what Johanns has done in his first months as secretary — primarily defending the president's budget proposals — has given them little reason to applaud, much less give him a standing ovation.
Even Republican senators and congressmen have said they wanted to get Johanns into the South to learn more about southern agriculture. Now Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has accomplished that feat.
During questioning of Charles Conner, President Bush's nominee for deputy secretary of agriculture, Lincoln demanded that Johanns travel to Arkansas before she would support Conner. USDA later confirmed the secretary would come to Arkansas May 23 to discuss the budget, soybean rust and civil rights.
“It's high time the secretary of agriculture come talk face to face with the farmers who will be directly impacted by President Bush's cuts,” Lincoln said. “I am eager to work with President Bush to address our historic deficit. But I think Arkansans deserve an explanation from Secretary Johanns as to why rural America, and, in particular, southern farmers are being asked to make a greater sacrifice.”
Southern resentment over agriculture issues has been building for some time. Although most southern farmers supported the president in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, southern voices have been conspicuously absent from the top levels of USDA.
Undersecretary Bill Hawks, a farmer and former state senator from Mississippi, was the only top-level official from the South to serve with then-Secretary Ann Veneman, a California native, and Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley of Indiana in the first Bush term.
Some thought Hawks, who is in charge of marketing and regulatory programs for USDA, would get the No. 1 or No. 2 position in the second term, but those went to Johanns and to Conner, a native of Indiana.
In the opening statement at his nomination hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Conner pledged to be an advocate for all farmers and ranchers whether from Georgia, North Dakota, Vermont, California or Indiana.
Most farmers aren't as interested in their home states as much as whether USDA officials will represent farmers. So far, Johanns has been more concerned with defending the administration on budget, trade and conservation issues. Lincoln's demands — and Johanns' response — may signal a change in that position.
“I think the president's budget has been a wake up call to the heartland of this country,” she said. “The programs he's cut have huge impacts on the quality of life in our rural communities.”