Veneman’s tenure marked by difficulty

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Ann Veneman, the US agriculture secretary whose resignation was announced on Monday by the White House, leaves unscathed from one of the cabinet's toughest portfolios.

When she arrived in 2001, the US farm economy was in dire straights, with commodity prices near historic lows. But at a press conference last week, she announced that net farm income in 2004 is set to reach $77.5bn, smashing the record of $60.9bn set in 1997.

That turnaround, due largely to rising domestic and world demand for many key US farm goods such as corn, beef, cotton and soyabeans, has put a shiny gloss on what otherwise could have been a very difficult four years.

Ms. Veneman, who grew up on a peach farm in California, first joined the agriculture department in 1986, focusing particularly on agricultural trade issues. That experience was critical when she was appointed secretary by President George W. Bush in 2001, because the department was immediately confronted with a series of devastating threats to US agriculture, beginning with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease among European cattle that led the US to ban all EU meat imports.

Disease remained at the top of her concerns, most recently in recent efforts to persuade Asian countries to reopen their markets to US beef after an isolated outbreak of mad cow disease in Washington state resulted in global markets being shut to more than $7bn annually in US beef exports.

Ms Veneman clashed early on with the powerful agricultural lobby and its allies in Congress by opposing the 2002 farm bill, which restored market-disrupting government payments for most US farm commodities. The bill, she warned, which promised as much as $190bn in subsidies over the next decade, would "exacerbate overproduction and perpetuate low commodity prices."

But Mr Bush, with an eye on farm state votes, failed to back her up, and the bill passed Congress easily despite international criticism.

Her prediction, however, has so far been wrong, with rising farm prices resulting in a decline in US government subsidies to farmers. Payments under the Commodity Credit Corporation, the largest US subsidy scheme, are expected to fall this year to just over $12bn, the lowest level since 1998.

Ms Veneman's successor will be handed the difficult task of trying to persuade US farmers to agree to permanent subsidy cuts as part of the Doha Round of world trade negotiations. The US, Europe and other countries reached a framework deal earlier this year on cutting subsidies, but the size of those reductions remains to be negotiated.

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