Bush makes surprise choice for USDA secretary

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WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) President George W Bush selected former North Dakota Gov Ed Schafer as agriculture secretary, a political conservative who pursued economic development in a rural state.

''I think you'll like him. He understands agriculture,'' Bush told a convention of the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association yesterday.

Schafer, 61, served two terms as North Dakota governor, ending in 2000 to return to business. He promoted economic growth as governor and cut the number of state employees.

If confirmed by the Senate, he would take charge of one of the largest federal departments with little more than a year left in Bush's tenure. His immediate task would be the final negotiations on the new US farm law. US farm subsidies are under attack at home and internationally as wasteful.

Farm-state senators welcomed the nomination and said they wanted to hear Schafer's views on the farm bill, which is scheduled for debate next week in the Senate. It would create the first-ever program to protect farmer income as an option to traditional subsidies.

It was the second time Bush surprised agricultural circles with his choice to lead the Agriculture Department, which oversees the national forests, crop subsidies and public nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunch.

''Who's that?'' asked one farm lobbyist when told Schafer was the choice.

Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said Schafer was a political conservative who would embrace free-market agriculture.

Schafer has a ''good working knowledge'' of agriculture from his tenure as governor of a state where farming is a major part of the economy, said Carlson, although Schafer came from a manufacturing background.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association noted North Dakota is a ranching state so ''we're hopeful the cattle industry will be a priority for him and we look forward to working with him.'' Schafer would succeed Mike Johanns, another surprise choice to lead USDA. Johanns quit as governor of Nebraska to become agriculture secretary at the start of Bush's second term. He resigned a few weeks ago to run for the Senate.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner has been in charge of USDA since Johanns resigned and was regarded as a possible successor.

REUTERS PD RAI0854

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