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California's mammoth farm sector ponders life after Veneman

By JIM WASSERMAN, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated 5:27 am PST Wednesday, November 17, 2004

SACRAMENTO (AP) - Far from Washington, D.C., and growing crops unfamiliar in many agricultural states, California's farmers are eyeing winter without the comfort of a U.S. secretary of agriculture from their own soil.

Monday's resignation of Modesto native Ann M. Veneman from the federal government's top farm post leaves the state without an agriculture secretary who intimately understands its unique crops, climate and pests, say officials who preside over a farm economy that produced $32 billion last year.



"I certainly don't think that if a Midwesterner or others being kicked about are appointed that we're going to see an immediate falloff in dealing with the issues," said California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli. "But when the top is focused on certain areas, that tends to get more immediate attention."

Officials say Veneman's familiarity with the state's array of specialty crops and her previous experience as Gov. Pete Wilson's secretary of food and agriculture from 1995-99 made her invaluable in promoting exports and fighting California's unique pest and disease problems. She was also a deputy secretary of agriculture from 1991-93 during the first Bush administration and a midlevel USDA official during the Reagan administration.

Veneman, 55, a peach farmer's daughter, resigned this week. California officials say they have much at stake in Veneman's replacement, who's expected to come from the South or Midwest, home to corn, soybeans, hogs and a dairy industry that has been surpassed by California in recent years.

California, though best known nationally as an entertainment and tourism capital, is also the nation's top producing farm state and is expected this year to produce $5 billion worth of milk and cream alone, dairy industry officials say. Watered by irrigation and snow melt from the Sierra Nevada and dotted with large corporate-style farms overseeing thousands of acres, the arid state with its Mediterranean climate produces billions more dollars worth of wine grapes, nursery products, cotton, strawberries, almonds and rice. More than 30 percent is exported, much to Mexico and Asia.

Veneman, a lawyer raised in the state's fertile San Joaquin Valley, was the nation's first female U.S. agriculture secretary and the second Californian to hold the post. Another Modesto native, Richard Lyng, headed the USDA from 1986-89 under President Reagan.

Veneman's four-year tenure under Bush has drawn praise in California, where she smoothed problems over exports, led trade missions to other nations, delivered $22 million to fight an outbreak of poultry disease and calmed fears during a mad-cow scare last year. Beef cattle is a $2 billion a year industry in California.

"She conveyed the absence of risk by stepping to a podium and informing the world that she planned to serve American beef at her holiday table," said California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura in a statement after her resignation.

Kawamura, an Orange County produce grower and shipper, said Veneman "worked tirelessly" for safe food, protection from California's exotic pests and diseases, farmland conservation and rural investment.

Others praised her for understanding and supporting California's cutting-edge ideas in Washington.

"One of the first things she did as secretary, she had her team put together a food and agricultural policy for the new century," said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Ross said it included ideas about land conservation and stewardship and noted changes in market forces that eventually collided with the new farm bill from Congress.

Ross, speaking for 4,800 growers who produced nearly $2 billion in wine grapes last year, cited Veneman's leadership in helping eradicate pests such as Pierce's disease spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

Dairy officials also praised Veneman's help in curbing animal diseases prevalent in other parts of the world.

"She was very good at stepping up to the plate and doing everything possible that our cattle herd was kept safe," said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen, a dairy industry trade group. He said California's 1.7 million cows produce as much milk as those in the next two states, Wisconsin and New York, combined.

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