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Farm Service Agency has new boss after dairyman's exit

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday named Jonathan Coppess as administrator of the Farm Service Agency, only three days after Doug Caruso, who had been appointed in April, abruptly quit.

Coppess has been serving as deputy FSA administrator for farm programs. He was a legislative assistant for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. He grew up on his family's corn and soybean farm in Ohio and practiced law in Chicago before he went to work for Nelson.

The FSA administrator is not particularly prominent in Washington. But is very important in rural America because the office manages delivery of farm subsidies and disaster payments and also runs credit programs for lower-income farmers.

The agency serves farmers through offices in nearly every county in the nation, but has been plagued by an outdated computer system. The economic stimulus package provided some funds to begin upgrading it.

Caruso, a former Wisconsin dairy executive and onetime state director for Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said in a statement that he had resigned because "the job was not what I expected."

In a telephone interview Thursday, Caruso said he had agreed with USDA officials not to speak further about his differences with the administration and added that he respected Coppess and wished him well as administrator. Caruso returned to Wisconsin.

FSA's state office directors are political appointees, but the Obama administration has named only a small percentage of them. Caruso's resignation caused a flurry of calls to Democratic members of Congress from potential appointees asking what happened and whether they should still be interested in the jobs, a Senate aide said.

In an interview Thursday, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said of Caruso's departure, "These jobs aren't for everyone. They're long hours, tough issues, and you have to have patience."

Merrigan said she considered Caruso to be "a great public servant" and that the administration looks forward to working with him in other roles. Merrigan also noted that this weekend key USDA officials will gather to talk about the decision-making process and how to be in quick contact with the secretary when necessary.

Also Thursday, Vilsack named William Murphy, a career civil servant, as administrator of the Risk Management Agency, which runs the crop insurance program. Both Coppess and Murphy will report to Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller.

Most previous administrations have named an outsider to this political post. The 2008 farm bill calls for the RMA administrator to renegotiate the contract between USDA and private insurance companies for provision of crop insurance, with an expectation of budget savings.

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