041211 Drought Aid, Beef Bans Face Nebraska Governor

December 3, 2004

Omaha, NB - While everyone now wants to know his stance on farm programs, drought aid, pork tariffs and food labeling, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns didn't want to talk about federal agricultural issues after his nomination by President Bush to be the next secretary of agriculture.

"I'm really going to avoid all policy questions," Johanns said at a short press conference.

In the past, Johanns has expressed his views on federal policy, particularly when he sees a need for a change. In September, he urged passage of emergency drought relief and lamented the lack of a standardized policy for handling drought matters.

"It is also high time to put a system in place that provides a coordinated federal drought response so we don't have to hope and hold our breath when faced with drought disasters," Johanns said at the time.

As governor of one of the nation's largest beef states, Johanns also largely supported the U.S. Department of Agriculture's response to mad cow disease, including the program to increase testing for the disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Still, Johanns criticized the USDA for announcing the results of inconclusive tests because of the impact on cattle markets.

"I question the wisdom in causing a negative ripple effect of concern over inconclusive results," he said in June.

Johanns declined to say whether he would reverse USDA policy on announcing inconclusive test results.

While on trade missions to countries including Japan, China and Taiwan in the past two years, Johanns as pushed for the reopening of borders to U.S. beef. Many countries banned imports after the discovery of one case of BSE in Washington state last December.

While the bans remain largely in place, trade negotiators continue to make headway, particularly in the key Japanese market.

Bob Dickey, a prominent grain farmer near Laurel, Neb., and a member of the National Corn Growers Association board of directors, traveled with Johanns to Mexico in October and recalls a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow, who attended talks involving Johanns and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Davidow "said he had never heard the words beef, pork, corn and soybeans so much in one conversation as he had when Johanns spoke," Dickey said.

Most of Nebraska's agricultural leaders said Johanns' eight trade missions since 1999 give the governor connections with key trade partners. Nebraska farmers also said Johanns will be a strong advocate for Midwest grain and livestock producers.

"It's comforting to know we will now have somebody from our own state that we can have access to," said Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board.

The calls came quickly to the offices of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, where no one had an inkling that Johanns would be nominated.

"I've been picking myself up off the floor," said Keith Olsen, president of the Farm Bureau. "This was totally out of the blue."

Hutchens was in St. Louis at a convention of the National Corn Growers Association. An informal gathering there included a long discussion about potential ag secretaries, Hutchens said, but Johanns wasn't mentioned.

Greg Ibach, assistant director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said he was in Washington by coincidence for a meeting with USDA officials. Johanns' work on issues such as drought has helped elevate his profile among farm leaders nationally, Ibach said.

"He has taken an active role in helping us in Nebraska as we have struggled with drought and worked with Secretary Veneman to develop programs for producers," Ibach said. Ann Veneman is the outgoing agriculture secretary.

Sallie Atkins, executive director of the Nebraska Beef Council, said ag secretary is a difficult job. "My first thought is, he is going to have more gray hair," she said. "Anybody who has had that position knows it is very hard to please everyone."

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said having someone in Washington with an understanding of Midwest agriculture and Nebraska would be encouraging. Nevertheless, he said, Johanns will face challenges dealing with lawmakers who want to erase government supports for producers.

"Congress is going to make efforts to open up the farm bill and reduce funding for farmers," Hansen said.


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