Profile: Ann Veneman

As California’s secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman won over the state’s skeptical small farmers.

They wanted someone with dirt under her fingernails. Although Veneman grew up on a peach farm in Modesto, Calif., she’s not a farmer herself. But Veneman’s skills at finding foreign markets for California’s peaches, pears and pistachios earned her plaudits all around — and show what may be a priority for the Bush Agriculture Department.

“She has considerable interest and experience in international trade. Ann understands the importance of opening new markets and expanding agricultural trade around the globe,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Bill Pauli said in a statement.

Was Highest-Ranking Woman at Agriculture

Veneman, 51, trained as a lawyer, with her rural background eventually pointing her interests toward agriculture. She worked in the Reagan Agriculture Department, and was promoted to the department’s No. 2 spot under the elder George Bush. She’s still the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the department.

Her support of the elder Bush continued to his son; she was George W. Bush’s campaign co-chairwoman in California and a Republican elector for the state.

In 1995, she was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as the first woman to head the of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in charge of the largest farming economy in the nation. Stepping down in 1999, she went to work for the law firm Nossaman, Gunther, Knox & Elliott, specializing in food, agriculture, environment, technology and trade-related issues.

Considered an advocate of big agribusinesses and biotechnology, she served on the board of biotech firm Calgene before joining the California Agriculture Department.

But she was scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest while working in California, disqualifying herself from actions involving Dole Food Co. or other companies she had represented in her earlier career as a lawyer. That conscientousness won her compliments from Consumers Union, which had helped bring down California’s previous agriculture secretary amid conflict-of-interest charges.

International Solutions

Veneman’s focus on international trade points to the Republican solution to economic problems caused by the 1996 Freedom to Farm law.

The law, supported by farmers, eliminated production limits and let farmers grow anything they wanted without fear of losing subsidies. But the good weather of the past several years has resulted in huge gluts of agricultural commodities, especially grain, and depressed prices.

The government has had to pass three multibillion-dollar farm bailouts in three years to keep farmers afloat.

Farm groups don’t want to bring the production controls back. They’d rather open up new markets overseas for their booming products.

Veneman is certainly qualified to take on the task, having helped negotiate the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement during the last Bush administration.

But she’ll be challenged by the short-term questions of how to support farmers as she tries to open up the markets for their goods.