A June 6 article about the Agriculture Department incorrectly said that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was the son of Nebraska farmers. He was raised on a farm in Iowa. (Published 6/8/2005)
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, son of Nebraska farmers, has wasted no time since assuming office in January tackling his department's hot-button issues: border restrictions on beef because of mad cow disease, nutrition and the complex $88 billion budget he oversees.
Next month, he will begin a listening tour across the country to gather input and opinions on what should be in the updated omnibus farm bill for 2007, an agenda item likely to dominate his tenure. Democrats say that although they disagree with many of the administration's fundamental policy and funding decisions, they believe Johanns has shown that he is engaged and knowledgeable.
The former Nebraska governor is starting to bring on board his own confidants from Nebraska, but he also has inherited most of his senior staff from former secretary Ann M. Veneman and the White House -- including the top posts of undersecretary and chief of staff -- all of whom have had long careers in the field.
"The secretary is very comfortable with them because they are very experienced," said Johanns spokeswoman Terri Teuber, who came with him from Nebraska and can be counted among his top advisers.
In the next month, Johanns will be joined by two more Nebraskans -- his state's agriculture director, Merlyn Carlson, who friends say is like a father figure to Johanns and who has expertise in regulatory issues, and Richard Raymond, Nebraska's chief medical officer for the department of health and human services, who is slated to oversee food safety.
Despite the long list of advisers steeped in agriculture experience, Teuber says Johanns still likes to reach into the community for advice. "He'll pick up the phone and call a rancher in South Dakota or a corn farmer in western Nebraska," she said. "That's how he really finds out what's going on."
Here's a brief look at the players who make up Johanns's inner circle at the USDA:
* Charles F. "Chuck" Conner was recently sworn in as deputy secretary, the department's second-highest post. Conner has built a career on the political and legislative side of agriculture policy. Most recently, he was on the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president for agricultural issues; he was considered the most influential aide on the subject in the White House.
Before becoming a Bush appointee, Conner was president of the Corn Refiners Association. He has been both the majority staff director and the minority staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
* Dale Moore is the department's chief of staff appointed by Veneman and retained by Johanns. Before joining the USDA in 2001, Moore was executive director for legislative affairs for the powerful National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Moore's expertise will be particularly valuable as the department and Johanns tackle the omnibus farm bill.
As legislative director of the House Agriculture Committee in the mid-1990s, Moore worked on the shaping and passage of the 1996 farm bill. Earlier, he was the Republican legislative coordinator for the House Agriculture Committee.
Moore grew up in Copeland, Kan., on a farm and holds a degree in animal science from Fort Hays State University.
* Drew DeBerry was the White House's liaison to the USDA before being appointed deputy chief of staff last month. The aide has deep roots in President Bush's home state of Texas, having started his career as agricultural aide to state Sen. Robert L. Duncan. DeBerry grew up in a farming family in Olton, Tex., and has a degree in agricultural economics from Texas Tech University.
He also served as the national director of the Farm and Ranch Coalition for the 2000 Bush campaign.
* Beth Johnson, who has been a senior agency adviser on food and health since 2002, was recently named deputy chief of staff. A dietician, Johnson in the 1990s was on the staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee where she focused on nutrition and livestock policy.
Johnson also was an associate director for food policy at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
* J.B. Penn started at the USDA under Veneman as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. He is considered the agency's point man for trying to persuade Japan to reopen its border to the billion dollars in U.S. beef exports -- a top priority. The agency has also been pushing to lift the U.S. block on the import of Canadian beef.
Penn had been a senior vice president and manager of Sparks Companies Inc.'s Washington office. Before he joined Sparks, an agricultural and commodity market research firm, Penn's government experience included being deputy administrator for economics of the USDA's Economics and Statistics Service and an economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
He has a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Arkansas State University, a master's in agricultural economics from Louisiana State University and a doctorate in agricultural economics from Purdue University.
* Eric M. Bost, the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, joined the department with the influx of Texans in 2001. Previously, Bost was commissioner of the Texas Department of Human Services. Industry experts and Democrats say Bost cares about the programs he administers.
Most recently, Bost was behind the department's new dietary guidelines, which offer nutritional advice, tailored to age and activity level. His portfolio also includes the food stamps and national school lunch programs.
* Terri Teuber was communications director for Johanns in Nebraska before joining the USDA in March in a similar capacity. She also served as the state's spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Patrol.
* Merlyn Carlson is a longtime adviser to Johanns in Nebraska who will be joining the agency next week as deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment. A Nebraska farmer himself, Carlson has a long history in the business and an expertise in trade issues.
"The secretary views him as a wise counsel," Teuber said. Carlson attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor's of science in agriculture with a major in animal science.
* Richard Raymond, a physician, has been nominated for the post of undersecretary for food safety. His office oversees the 9,000 food inspectors nationwide.