Ed Schafer is the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. After the Senate unanimously confirmed the former North Dakota governor to his new post, Schafer took the oath of office in Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office. He then attended President Bush’s State of the Union speech as a member of Bush’s Cabinet.

Schafer’s quick and controversy-free move to USDA’s head comes after Mike Johanns resigned the post last September. Johanns plans to run for the Nebraska seat of retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel.

In a statement, Bush said Schafer “distinguished himself as an executive with a proven record of results…

“He will work with the Congress to pass a responsible farm bill that will provide a safety net for farmers and protect our lands and the environment, while at the same time ensuring federal tax dollars are spent wisely.”

Schafer moves to the USDA at a time when Congress and the Bush administration remain at odds over a new farm bill. House and Senate versions of the farm bill have passed and are awaiting a conference to reconcile. However, the White House is threatening a veto, objects to Congress’ funding proposals for the farm bill and wants to prohibit subsidies for farmers whose income tops $200,000 annually.

Those looking for a sign that the White House might soften its position in the farm bill fracas found nothing promising in Bush’s latest State of the Union address. Instead, Bush maintained his tough line against any new taxes and, in a move sure to concern U.S. farming organizations, urged Congress to “support an innovative proposal to provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.”

Among those offering congratulations to Schafer was Bob Stallman, head of American Farm Bureau Federation. “Secretary Schafer’s extensive experience with agriculture during his two terms as governor of North Dakota should benefit all Americans as he assumes oversight of crucial farm, food and conservation programs,” said Stallman.

“Secretary Schafer’s experience with grain and livestock import issues and his understanding of the importance of home-grown fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, are among his many strengths. As trade negotiations on farm goods continue, we offer our support for his efforts to open important new markets.

“As the opportunity arises, we will offer Secretary Schafer insights on the new farm bill from our farmer and rancher members who work on the land to provide food, fiber and fuel for our nation.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, is optimistic Schafer can help resolve the farm bill impasse. “It is critical that USDA work with Congress to overcome the challenges in completing a new farm bill for the department to implement. Gov. Schafer’s leadership can help make this new farm bill a reality.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com