WASHINGTON — Californian Ann M. Veneman, tapped by President-elect George W. Bush to become the first female U.S. secretary of Agriculture, is no stranger to the potentially treacherous political turf of farm policy.
Raised on a Modesto peach ranch, the Sacramento lawyer was second-in-command at the federal Department of Agriculture when Bush's father was president and served as California secretary of food and agriculture under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
Geographically, Bush's selection of Veneman cuts against the grain. Although California is the largest agricultural producing state, the pick to head the federal agency traditionally has gone to a Midwesterner--a fact not lost on Iowa's two senators.
"Naturally, I am very concerned that anyone leading [the department] has to understand Iowa and Midwest agriculture and the issues important in our part of the country," said Sen. Tom Harkin, top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
His Republican colleague, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, added: "I'm always disappointed that the person who becomes secretary of Agriculture doesn't have dirt under his or her fingers."
But in a good sign of Veneman's chances of winning Senate confirmation, she won praise from Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the chamber's Democratic leader. "It's a good appointment. She comes with experience."
Veneman has faced skepticism about her agricultural pedigree before.
When Wilson named her California's top agriculture official in 1995, many farmers said they would have preferred a farmer.
But Veneman won over the state's farm bureau with her efforts to open new markets abroad. She updated an antiquated system by which counties reported their pesticide use to the state and tightened pest controls at the border. And she emerged as a strong advocate for the state's agriculture industry.
During a health scare about California strawberries in 1997, Veneman joined other officials at a news conference to discount the fears--and ate some state-grown fruit.
"She had done her homework, was convinced that what she was doing was safe and felt there's nothing quite so credible as demonstrating your belief," Wilson recalled Wednesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Veneman, 51, will face immediate political challenges as she assumes her new post. Among them: a tug of war between environmentalists and the timber industry over how much federal forest land should be put off limits to commercial use, efforts by farmers to further ease trade restrictions to Cuba and increasing pressure from abroad for Washington to toughen its regulation of genetically engineered foods.
In announcing his choice from Austin, Texas, Bush cited Veneman's experience in Sacramento and Washington. "She's bright. She's capable. And she'll do an outstanding job," he said.
Veneman, a California co-chair of the Bush campaign, said she was "honored and humbled."
"Agriculture is part of the fabric that makes America great," she said. "Our farmers feed and clothe not only the people in this country but people around the world, and it's important that we work together to expand markets for our food and fiber both at home and abroad."
Consumer advocate Harry Snyder, who knew Veneman from her days as California agriculture chief, said she was the "best choice" for consumers among the field of people who could pass muster with Bush.
"We're not going to win everything, but at least there will be dialogue," said Snyder, an official in the San Francisco office of Consumers Union.
Snyder said he was impressed that Veneman sought out consumer advocates for discussions soon after she took the California job. He applauded her for applying conflict-of-interest rules to the department, whose previous director resigned after it was revealed that he failed to disclose outside farm income.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, "Her nomination signals that President-elect Bush intends to follow through on his campaign pledges to open new markets for agriculture."
California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli predicted that Veneman would focus on such issues as trade, food safety and stabilization of the farm economy, which has been hit with higher costs at the same time some commodity prices are hitting record lows.
Veneman is the daughter of the late California Assemblyman John G. "Jack" Veneman, a moderate Republican who served in the Nixon administration as a deputy undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare. The assemblyman sold the family farm when he took the federal post.
As an undergraduate at UC Davis, Ann Veneman was an intern for then-Assemblyman Pete Wilson in the 1960s. After receiving her degree from Hastings College of Law, she worked as a deputy public defender in Stanislaus County and as an attorney for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system before moving to Washington.
She joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's foreign agricultural service in 1986, rising in 1989 to deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs. She served as the agency's deputy secretary from 1991 to 1993, the latter half of the senior Bush's administration.
She spent a stint working at the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs LLP, whose clients have included Dole Food Co.
In Sacramento, she has worked as a lawyer with the firm of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott.
Veneman once served on the board of biotechnology pioneer Calgene Inc. of Davis. In 1994, the company introduced the world's first genetically engineered food-- the Flavr-Savr tomato--but it failed in the marketplace.
Seven years later, the gene revolution has produced a large array of gene-spliced crops, and Veneman is likely to play a leading role in the bitter debate over their safety.
Times staff writer Melinda Fulmer contributed to this story.