Agriculture Secretary leaves post

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(Host) After four years in Montpelier, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr will leave his job next month.

In a wide-ranging interview with Vermont Public Radio, Kerr said it was his decision to leave. But he also made it clear the Douglas Administration wanted someone in the post who was more attune to politics.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Kerr is an outspoken advocate for the dairy industry, which accounts for about 75% of the state’s farm revenue.

He’s also been a controversial agriculture secretary. He clashed frequently with those opposed to genetically modified products. And he’s challenged federal immigration policy, which he says hurts Vermont farmers struggling to find workers.

Kerr says that after four years in the public eye, he needed to get his life back.

(Kerr) “It was time. I have found myself wondering why I am doing this more and more. The work I love, the politics I hate.”

(Dillon) In his career, Kerr has worked on Capitol Hill as a specialist on farm issues, for the Holstein Association in Brattleboro, and as Vermont director of the federal Farm Services Agency.

Governor Jim Douglas then appointed him to head the state Agriculture Agency. And Kerr became embroiled in legislative debates over farm regulation, animal ID programs, and gene-altered seeds.

(Kerr) “We’ve done what we set out to do. We straightened out the right to farm law. We created the nation’s model water quality program for farmers. We, I think, forced people to look at the truth about GE technology.”

(Dillon) During the debate over genetically modified seeds, Kerr accused opponents of the technology of waging a jihad, or holy war against the technology.

It was an impolitic remark, but it was vintage Kerr.

Governor Douglas vetoed the bill that would have shifted the legal liability for damages from GE products from the farmer to the manufacturer.

But Kerr says there were some in the Douglas Administration who wanted him to be more sensitive to the politics at play in agriculture debates. He said they wanted

(Kerr) “And these are the words of the Chief of Staff someone less intellectual and more political.’ And I thought, well, okay, that’s cool. That’s not me.”

(Dillon) Douglas Chief of Staff Tim Hayward said Kerr submitted his resignation, and that the administration does not comment on personnel matters.

In a statement, the governor said he appreciated Kerr’s leadership during a challenging time for farmers.

Over the last year, dairy farmers have faced record low milk prices, disastrous weather, and high fuel costs. The state stepped in with an $8 million assistance program. But Kerr says more needs to be done.

(Kerr) “At some point in time the politicians have to decide whether they’re going to deal with the problem as a problem, not a political issue. And there are solutions. They’re never easy. But we’ve shown with $8 million we can stem the tide. Now whether the legislature has the money, or the will, or whether the governor frankly has the money or will, to put together a package this January remains to be seen.”

(Dillon) Kerr said the most vexing problem facing dairy farmers is illegal immigration, since the farm labor problem can only be resolved with legislation that is now stalled in Washington.

He said he’s not sure what he’ll do next. He said he’s already had two job offers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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