In one of the last official acts of the 109th Congress, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Mississippian Mark Keenum to be undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agriculture services.

Keenum, a former agricultural economist with Mississippi State University and chief of staff for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, will become the third highest-ranking official in the Agriculture Department.

A veteran of the last three farm bill debates, Keenum is expected to be the Bush administration’s point man on the writing of the 2007 farm bill. As Sen. Cochran’s agricultural aide, Keenum helped write the 1991 and 1996 farm laws and as chief of staff was an active participant in the 2002 legislation.

“Mark is someone who will give USDA a strong relationship with the Hill,” said the executive director of one farm organization who follows the farm bill debate closely. “There aren’t that many people with Hill experience over there.”

After receiving his Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Mississippi State, Keenum joined the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, providing economic analyses for Mississippi’s then-fledging catfish industry.

He continued to work closely with catfish farmers and row crop producers until he left MSU to join Cochran’s staff in Washington in 1991.

“Even though he moved his office, you really can’t say Mark has ever stopped working with and for farmers,” said another farm leader. “Mark has continued to be a strong advocate for agriculture throughout his career in Washington.”

Keenum’s strong agricultural background was cited in a letter sent to Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry in the last Congress, by 78 farm organizations prior to confirmation hearings for Keenum.

“During his distinguished service, Mark has gained a deep appreciation for the importance of working in a bipartisan manner to successfully achieve results for U.S. agriculture,” the letter said.

“Mark has been deeply involved in the development of the last three farm bills which occurred during periods when Republicans and Democrats alternately controlled the House and Senate as well as the White House. He has demonstrated an ability to work with diverse interests to develop and implement effective policies that address production agriculture, conservation and trade policy.”

The organizations, which included the American Farm Bureau, the National Cotton Council, the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, and the USA Rice Federation, said they believe “it is critically important to place a proven leader in this key position as expeditiously as possible.”

Keenum will replace J.B. Penn, a native of Arkansas and graduate of Arkansas State University, who resigned in August to return to private business. Penn became undersecretary shortly after Ann Veneman became secretary of agriculture in 2001 and represented the administration in the preparation of the 2002 farm bill.

“It always seemed that the administration was developing farm policy goals so far from those sought by people on the Hill that they were never able to play a real role in the debate,” said one observer. “Hopefully, that will change with Mark.”

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