Who will lead Trump's USDA?

Editor's note: This post has been updated with new potential candidates.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, one of the many choices facing him and his transition team involves the new Secretary of Agriculture. 

Much in the way of food policy and safety is currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since Trump said very little during his campaign about food policy, his USDA pick becomes all the more important. This person could have influence over the agency's priorities, funding, staffing levels and policies for years to come.

Many names have been floated as potential Trump picks for this vital role. But who are they and what might they do? Here are all of the people we've heard of, in alphabetical order, and a little bit about the background and viewpoints they might bring to the job. We will continue to update this record with new names or information that surfaces between now and when the new secretary takes office.

 

Sam Brownback

 

Current position: Governor of Kansas


Background: Brownback grew up on a pig farm that his parents still run. He earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics, then went on to be a lawyer. He taught agricultural law at Kansas State University, and co-wrote two books about the topic.

He has served in both houses of Congress and was elected as the state's governor in 2010. Brownback was a member of the House of Representatives from 1994 to 1996, then served in the Senate until 2010. In the Senate, he was the top-ranking Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Brownback, who also was once secretary of the Kansas Board of Agriculture, is a member of Trump's agricultural advisory committee.

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Susan Combs

 

Current position: Entrepreneur; former Texas agriculture commissioner, former Texas comptroller


Background: Combs, who was elected as the Lone Star State’s first female agriculture head in 1998, pushed several nutrition initiatives that have been compared to Michelle Obama’s. She instituted policies removing fried foods, soda and sugary items from the state’s public schools.

She became the state’s comptroller in 2006, working to streamline tax processes and cut government purchasing. However, while she held office, the department inadvertently released personal information of 3.5 million Texans, believed to be the biggest breach of data in state history.

She manages a cattle ranching operation that has been in her family since 1882, and has written books -- her own memoir and a 1990 romance novel.

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Chuck Conner

 

Current position: President and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives


Background: Conner has been involved with agriculture all of his life, growing up on a family farm in Indiana. His bachelor’s degree is in agricultural economics.

He has worked in various positions advising and setting federal agricultural policy. He was President George W. Bush’s agriculture adviser, and Bush named him deputy USDA secretary in 2005. Conner spent some time as the acting head of the agency after then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns resigned to pursue a U.S. Senate bid in Nebraska.

Before USDA, Conner had several positions in the U.S. Senate, mostly with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

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Dave Heineman

 

Current position: Former governor of Nebraska


Background: Heineman holds the record for being Nebraska's longest-serving chief executive. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2002 and became governor in 2005 when then-Gov. Johanns became President George W. Bush’s USDA secretary. Heineman was elected to two full terms and left office in 2015.

As governor and in several other statewide posts, he worked to secure agricultural trade agreements for Nebraska products. He secured a $400 million trade agreement with Taiwan and two $30 million agreements with Cuba, and opened a trade office in Japan.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and is a graduate of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools.

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Heidi Heitkamp

 

Current position: Democratic U.S. senator from North Dakota


Background: The first-term senator, who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has spent her time in Congress as an advocate for farmers. She had a key role in the 2014 Farm Bill, which expanded crop insurance, did away with direct subsidy payments to farmers, and reduced SNAP funding. On genetically modified ingredients, she broke with other Democrats and voted for voluntary labeling.

Prior to her election to the U.S. Senate, she served as North Dakota’s attorney general from 1993 to 2001. She was one of the state attorneys general who urged Congress to demand more information about livestock prices from meat packers, contributing to the passage of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act.

She also worked as the director of the Dakota Gasification synfuels plant.

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Charles Herbster

 

Current position: Owner of several agribusiness companies; Trump’s top campaign agricultural adviser


Background: A longtime friend of Trump’s, Herbster is a successful businessman who once made a foray into politics. He ran for Nebraska governor in 2013, but abruptly dropped out and donated $860,000 to one of his former rivals.

Herbster has been a large donor to both Republican candidates and the super PAC Ag America. He is on the PAC’s steering committee.

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Tim Huelskamp

 

Current position: U.S. Representative from Kansas


Background: Huelskamp has a Ph.D in agricultural policy, and his family has farmed for many generations.

He was first elected to represent his large rural district in Congress in 2011, and briefly served on the House Agriculture Committee. He was removed from the committee in 2012, and lost the Republican primary to challenger Roger Marshall — who will succeed him in the 115th Congress — in August.

He chairs the House Tea Party Caucus and is a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

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Mike McCloskey

 

Current position: Founder and CEO, Select Milk Producers; chairman of the board, Fair Oaks Farms


Background: One of the co-chairs of Trump’s campaign advisory council on agriculture, McCloskey is best known for his work and innovation in the dairy industry. Select Milk Producers is the nation’s sixth-largest milk cooperative.

McCloskey is based at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, with about 15,000 dairy cows. The dairy is well-known for its sustainability practices, powering its dairy and trucks with compress natural gas made from cow manure. The farm is also open to the public as an educational park to showcase the agricultural industry.

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Ted McKinney

 

Current position: Director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture


Background: McKinney was appointed to head Indiana’s agriculture department by Gov. Mike Pence (now the vice president-elect) in 2014. Prior to taking office, he was director of global corporate affairs for Elanco Animal Health, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly and Co. He grew up on a family grain and livestock farm, and worked in corporate affairs of a few different agribusiness companies.

McKinney has been a vocal supporter of the Trump-Pence ticket, and told DTN/The Progressive Farmer that if Trump were elected, "American agriculture will be at the fore. It will not be forgotten."

Working with the Pence administration, McKinney helped to bring the Future Farmers of America conference to Indiana. He has a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University.

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Sid Miller

 

Current position: Texas agriculture commissioner


Background: Since his election as head of Texas’ agriculture department in 2014, Miller, an enthusiastic Trump supporter, has had an interesting tenure. The former state legislator and agriculture vocational education teacher has rolled back guidelines prohibiting deep fryers, sugary sodas and junk food snacks in schools. He’s also been under scrutiny for accusations of using public funds to travel out of state to compete in a rodeo and get a so-called pain-curing “Jesus shot.”

Miller has socially conservative viewpoints on issues like abortion and immigration, and was in the spotlight for calling Hillary Clinton an obscenity in a tweet before the election.

He owns a plant nursery and tree farm, and is a champion calf-roper.

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Jerry Moran

 

Current position: U.S. senator from Kansas


Action: Moran denied reports that he had been offered the position, saying he plans to remain in the Senate.

Background: Moran, the current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee, was just elected to his second term in November. Previously, he served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has a conservative voting and legislative record.

According to his campaign website, he opposes overreaching regulations on agriculture. He fought the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, and opposed the USDA’s promotion of “meatless Mondays.”

Moran is a lawyer who started his political service in the Kansas State legislature.

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Elsa Murano

 

Current position: Director of the Borlaug Institute and food science professor, Texas A&M; University


Background: Murano, who was born in Cuba, has a long history working in food science and safety -- as well as working with policy and the private sector. She has a doctorate in food science from Virginia Tech, and served as the USDA undersecretary for food safety under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. Under her leadership, recalls decreased about 50%, going from 113 in 2002 to fewer than 50 in 2004.

She also has had a vibrant and busy career in academia. She became president of Texas A&M; in 2008, and was the first female, the first Hispanic, and the first person younger than 50 to have the position. She resigned in 2009 amid controversy over her performance, but returned to the university as a professor. She has been director of The Borlaug Institute, which is dedicated to helping farmers around the world out of poverty through agriculture and food science, since 2014. She had many other positions at Texas A&M;, and was also a nutrition and food safety professor at Iowa State University.

In 2006, she was named to the board of directors of Hormel Foods.

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Butch Otter

 

Current position: Governor of Idaho


Background: Otter, who has been governor of the Gem State since 2006, has many years of experience in both state and federal government. He served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 1987 to 2001, and served three terms in Congress after that. He started his political career with three terms as a member of the Idaho House of Representatives in the 1970s.

In the private sector, Otter spent 30 years working with agribusiness firm the J.R. Simplot Company, founded by Otter’s former father-in-law. He started as a low-level employee, and eventually the company’s president.

He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the College of Idaho, and he served in the Idaho Army National Guard’s armored cavalry.

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Sonny Perdue

 

Current position: Former governor of Georgia


Background: Perdue was a popular governor, serving from 2003 to 2011. When elected, he was the state’s first Republican chief executive in more than 130 years. His tenure is known for its budget-cutting and organizational reforms, as well as improvements in education.

A former state senator, Perdue is a veterinarian and was a captain in the U.S. Air Force. He owns several agriculture-related businesses.

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Rick Perry

 

Current position: Former governor of Texas


Action: Perry has reportedly been offered the position of Energy secretary.

Background: The longest-serving governor in Texas history, with more than 14 years as the state’s chief executive, Perry was an early opponent to Trump in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perry succeeded George W. Bush as governor in 2000, and left office in 2015.

Perry is known for his fiscally and socially conservative policies. But before he was governor, he was elected Texas agriculture commissioner for two terms. He also unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012 and again in the 2016 cycle (actually dropping out in 2015) and served in the state legislature.

He has a degree in animal science and served in the U.S. Air Force for five years. Before entering politics, he worked in the cotton farming business with his father.

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Bruce Rastetter

 

Current position: CEO and founder, Summit Agricultural Group


Background: A successful Iowa crop and livestock farmer, Rastetter formed Heartland Pork and helped grow it into one of the nation’s largest pork producers. He established the Midwestern Summit Ag Fund, which is a farm leasing and acquisition fund. He also is well known in the sustainability field, co-founding the nation’s top ethanol producer, Hawkeye Energy Holdings, and founding other related agribusinesses.

Rastetter is a prolific political donor. In 2015, he hosted the first-ever Iowa Agriculture Summit, where he interviewed top contenders for the Republican nomination on farm policy.

He has a degree from the University of Iowa and is president of the Iowa Board of Regents. He also serves on the board of directors for Iowa Premium Beef and Cultivation Corridor.

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Kip Tom

 

Current position: CEO of Tom Farms LLC


Background: Tom, who grew up on his family’s farm in northwest Indiana, still uses the land as part of his much larger commodity farming empire. He is especially known for his seed production business.

He ran to represent Indiana in Congress this year, but was defeated in the Republican primary. Before his run, he was a member of the board of directors of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., where he served under former governor and vice president-elect Mike Pence.

He seems to support looser federal restrictions on farming, telling the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, “I believe it’s time to contribute and make sure that we don’t get in the way of innovation and creativity in our country.”

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Don Villwock

 

Current position: Former president, Indiana Farm Bureau


Background: Villwock led state's farm bureau from 2002 to 2015, when he stepped down and said he was going to return to his corn, soybean and wheat farm. The longtime friend of Pence soon changed course, announcing his candidacy to lead the American Farm Bureau. He lost the 2016 election to lead the group.

He has a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University. Villwock was state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service from 1989 to 1993. He was a liaison for former U.S. senator Richard Lugar, and was appointed to the national Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture in 1997.

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Filed Under: Policy