Vilsack helps to make history

(Editorial from The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times)

It is the only commencement address in Iowa that sticks with us: Tom Vilsack waked the echoes of Hubert Humphrey and Henry Wallace when he spoke on May 23, 2004, to the Buena Vista University commencement in the Siebens Fieldhouse. Then the governor, the Mount Pleasant Democrat just about knocked us out of our chair with a speech that challenged the graduates to live in Iowa and feed the world.

“Passionate people can fundamentally change a state, a nation and the world,” Vilsack said. “I find myself drawn to the power of what we know and what we can grow. We can feed the 350 million starving children in the world and put a different face on America.”

Vilsack’s passion has the opportunity to express itself as he was named President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to become Secretary of Agriculture, the first Iowan to hold the post since Wallace. (Departing Ag Secretary Mike Johanns was reared on a farm near Osage, but he was named to the job from Nebraska.)

Obama already has put a different face on America just by his election. Vilsack can fill it out by pursuing the idealism he touched on at BVU four years ago. It is that sort of visionary thinking that attracted Obama to Vilsack, himself a former presidential contender.

Vilsack grew into the governorship from a cautious compromiser to a bold leader who set out to reshape Iowa on its key strengths: natural resources and education. Vilsack envisioned a state that would become a national leader in biosciences. He told the eager Beavers that we could fee the hungry and cure the sick through advancements in life science through livestock and plants.

Through fits and starts, we believe that Vilsack set the stage for Iowa’s golden era where town and farm alike prosper through scientific innovation. Our verdant fields can become a source for fuel and food. With Vilsack leading the USDA, we can expect to get the push we need.

Vilsack also recognized that rural areas needed a shot in the arm from the state. He pursued revitalization on two fronts: rebuilding communities through the Vision Iowa program, and saving our natural resources for future generations to enjoy. When Storm Lake received its $8 million Vision Iowa award for Project Awaysis, Vilsack made sure he was there to hand it out. His administration was steadfast in its support of restoration for our lake; dredging did not occur before him and would not have started without him.

If Vilsack brings that sort of passion for rural development to the USDA, we will see small towns pulling themselves up by the bootstraps as Storm Lake has done — with an assist from the USDA.

Vilsack’s goals dovetail with Obama’s: invest heavily in renewable energy, provide a safety net for production agriculture, embrace science and conserve resources.

Those also are the goals of Senate Agriculture Committee Tom Harkin, who put renewable energy and conservation the center of the recent farm bill. Harkin will find an administration in Obama and Vilsack who work to implement his goals rather than fight them. Harkin squawked recently that he wasn’t getting much love from Obama, who was introduced to Iowa Democrats by Harkin. There’s plenty of love for the senator in this appointment, and he sounds happy. So do most people with a knowledge of agriculture, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, both Republicans. They understand that Vilsack has a keen mind that can wrap around issues such as energy independence and a vibrant agriculture.

History will remember Tom Vilsack as one of Iowa’s greatest governors, the one who helped the state turn the corner into a new millenium. We suspect that students of agricultural history will remember him in the same way as he breaks new ground with the Obama Administration. We hope he never forgets that speech he delivered here four years ago, because it was seeded with the hope that made for such a historic election last November.

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