New agriculture secretary: farm 'pro' -- political novice

Ronald Reagan's choice of John Block for secretary of agriculture adds a Midwestern farmer to the Cabinet list -- and yet another newcomer to the Washington scene.

But Mr. Block, who met President-elect Ronald Reagan in California Dec. 18, is not new to farming. The West Point graduate, still in his 40s, raises 6,000 hogs annually on a 3,000-acre family farm near Galesburg, Ill. Just 20 years ago the farm was 300 acres and produced 200 hogs. While building up the farm, Block was active in the American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes government interference in agriculture.

After becoming Illinois director of agriculture in 1977, Block immediately began promoting exports. His travels in that regard have taken him to Western European capitals and to China, Japan, Taiwan, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary.

Senate confirmation is expected to present no problems for Block. But, say agricultural observers, his chief qualification and chief drawback for the federal post are one and the same: no experience in Washinton.

During the battle between leading contenders for the Cabinet slot, farmers insisted that the department must be run by a true farmer, not a once-upon-a-time farmer tainted by years in Washington or by close association with agribusiness.

For farmers, such concerns ruled out the other early favorites for the post. One of these was Richard Lyng, who served as an assistant secretary of agriculture under presidents Nixon and Ford and was president of the American Meat Institute. Other former USDA assitant secretaries, Clayton Yeutter and Richard Bell, head the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Riceland Foods in Arkansas, respectively. Both Yeutter and Mr. Bell have been blamed for helping to hold down prices paid to farmers for their products.

Yet even Block's loudest champions admit that his lack of Washington experience may put him at a disadvantage. They realize that, like his predecessors, he will come under extreme pressure to bend farm policy to suit other sectors representing larger number of votes.

In a recent interview, President Carter's secretary of agriculture, Bob Bergland, spoke of these pressures. During his four years in office, he said, the White House and the Treasury Department constantly pressed for food embargoes to hold down domestic food prices. Secretary Bergland felt he was able to resist this pressure thanks to his familiarity with Washington politics as a former congressman.

(Mr Bergland sees the Soviet grain embargo as a separate issue. He maintains full support for this embargo on the basis that it was imposed, not to hold down US food prices, but as a foreign policy response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.)

Bergland and others explain that any newcomer, such as Block, might lack the political skills and clout needed to resist antifarm pressures in Washington.

Mr. Block's record of achievements in Illinois clearly has been a key factor in his rapid rise to national prominence.

Farm Bureau spokesmen in Illinois praise Block's record of pursuing farmer-oriented regulatory programs dealing with soil and water conservation, pesticide use, grain handling, meat inspection, and animal health. He also is credited with improving consumer understanding of farm problems and with promoting gasohol production.

In a recent interview, Block said: "I think it's absolutely essential, not only for consumers and farmers, but for the whole nation, that the Department of Agriculture put top priority on safeguarding the interests and promoting the interests of production agriculture. . . . That's where we raise the food and fiber and even energy today that's going to be used, not only in our country, but around the world."

For all his globe-trotting and promotion of agricultural interests, Block still finds time for recreation. A dedicated jogger, he was a finisher in th 1980 Boston Marathon.

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