The most avid political junkies probably couldn’t name five U.S. agriculture secretaries; Tom Vilsack, the current occupant of the post, may be about to join that short list.

The farm sector is one of the few bright spots in a rough U.S. economy. Vilsack, the popular former governor of Iowa, who has an appreciation of policy and politics, is one of the success stories of the Obama administration.

Usually, the Agriculture Department, started under Abraham Lincoln and celebrating its 150th birthday this year, is a backwater that serves to pacify disgruntled farmers. The most memorable secretaries owe their prominence to controversy. Henry Wallace, a creative force in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration before he became FDR’s vice president, later became a left-wing challenger to President Harry Truman during the Cold War; Earl Butz, who was secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was forced out after uttering racist and anti-Catholic jokes.

Vilsack, 61, has been in office three years, and is emerging as one of the most effective and respected agriculture chiefs.

“He’s doing a very good job,” Republican Senator Charles Grassley says of his fellow Iowan. The veteran lawmaker gives Vilsack high grades for settling civil rights issues concerning black farmers, helping family farmers get more information and compete better, and boosting agricultural exports. “I’ve heard nothing negative about him,” Grassley says.

Rising Income

There isn’t much negative to say about agriculture these days. Farm income reached an estimated $100 billion for the first time last year. Real family income, down for most Americans, has risen 5 percent for family farmers under the Obama/Vilsack tenure. The value of farm lands is at a record high and farm debt fell almost 2 percent last year.

That positive trend emerges across the board. The number of farmers’ markets has climbed to more than 7,000, up 54 percent from 2008. Agriculture-dependent companies such as Deere and Co. and Monsanto Co. are posting record profit.

Agricultural exports soared to $136.3 billion last year, producing a net trade surplus of $42 billion; this surplus was $5 billion five years ago. The largest market is China; it’s no coincidence that when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits the U.S. this week, he’ll stop by Muscatine, Iowa.

Vilsack says his department has successfully targeted 15-20 countries to boost exports. One of those is Vietnam, which he visited last year, and is now the 15th largest customer for U.S. farm products.

The secretary estimates that his focus on exports and other issues such as food safety and climate change means up to 40 percent of his time is spent on global matters.

“You can’t name a critical issue today where we don’t have an impact,” he says; that includes work in places such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. is promoting crops to replace opium poppies.

Vilsack has shown resiliency all his life. Abandoned only days after birth, he was adopted from an orphanage. He later went on to get a law degree, got into politics, and in 1998, became the first Democrat elected governor of Iowa in 30 years.

Five years ago, he briefly entertained the idea of running for president; he dropped out of the race and embraced the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. As a successful two-term Iowa governor with deep expertise in agricultural issues, he was a natural choice for Obama to tap as the 30th agriculture secretary.

Skeptics Abound

Nonetheless, the appointment was greeted with skepticism by sustainable food advocates and environmentalists, who worried he would be too pro-farmer. Business groups, meanwhile, were concerned he would be too pro-regulation. He has walked these delicate lines adroitly and wins praise from diverse groups.

“We have a good working relationship,” says Bob Stallman, the president of the conservative American Farm Bureau.

In tough fiscal times, aided by strong interest in agricultural issues on Capitol Hill, he’s done better in the budget battles than most of his fellow Cabinet members. Half of his $144 billion budget is devoted to food stamps, which have come under attack by Republican presidential candidates, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who suggest the program largely benefits the indolent.

Vilsack points out that 92 percent of food stamp benefits go to recipients who don’t receive cash welfare, including the aging, the severely disabled, the working poor and children. He boasts that even with the higher demand for the assistance program caused by the recession, his department has markedly reduced fraud. “We operate under greater integrity than ever,” he says.

Admirers say he’s versed in both politics and ideas. “He is a sponge for details and then he spins those into big ideas,” says Michael Gartner, a renowned former newspaper editor in Iowa, who Vilsack appointed to run the state’s Board of Regents. “You didn’t dare go in to argue with him on any issue without understanding every paragraph of the policy and every line of the balance sheet -- because he knew both, backward and forward. On the other hand, he would listen, and if you could make a case he would change his mind.”

In an interview in his spacious office, which features a prominent picture of the last Iowan to serve in his post, Henry Wallace, he rattles off encouraging statistics and describes the vast reach of his department, with almost 100,000 employees.

Vilsack acknowledges a traditional Republican bent among farmers but says the president will hold his own in the November election in battleground farm states such as Iowa. “I like our prospects in rural areas.”

That prompts mention of a much-discussed Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler Group LLC in which the actor Clint Eastwood declared it to be halftime in America and says the auto industry is on the way back.

Eastwood, he says, could make the same ad for American agriculture with one difference: “It’s the fourth quarter, and we’re winning.”

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.