Head of Foreign Agricultural Service reassigned

Michael Michener had come under fire for focusing on Afghanistan projects at the expense of the agency’s traditional roles.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday reassigned Michael Michener, administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, to serve as his special representative at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations Agencies in Rome.

Michener announced his change of jobs in an e-mail to the FAS staff. He said his last day in the office would be Dec. 31 and that John Brewer, his deputy and FAS general sales manager -- who is in charge of marketing U.S. agricultural products overseas -- will become acting administrator on Jan. 1.

Michener, an Iowan who previously worked for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, was a foreign affairs adviser for Vilsack's short-lived 2008 presidential campaign. After Vilsack was named Agriculture secretary, he selected Michener to head FAS. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

In his e-mail, Michener listed a series of accomplishments during his tenure at FAS. "In my time as FAS Administrator," he wrote, "we implemented a turnaround process that stabilized our agency's budget, allowed a resumption of hiring and travel, and executed a strategic planning process to 're-envision' how FAS does business. We have also led the USDA engagement with the departments of Defense, State, and USAID to support the expanded deployment of USDA agricultural experts to Afghanistan, a key component of the president's strategy to defeat al Qaeda. This is work I am very proud of and I thank the wonderful and dedicated staff at FAS who supported me along the way."

But a USDA insider said Michener was reassigned after an FAS personnel survey showed low morale at the agency. Both current and retired FAS officers have criticized Michener for the amount of attention he has devoted to agricultural development projects in Afghanistan, saying the agency's traditional missions of analyzing foreign agricultural production and promoting the sale of U.S. agricultural products were being neglected.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., wrote to Vilsack and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year asking them to explain the role of FAS in Afghanistan. Lugar said he was worried the agency was taking over work that should be done by USAID and neglecting its traditional duties. Vilsack and Clinton separately assured Lugar that USAID and FAS would continue to play their long-standing roles.

In his e-mail, Michener said he was "honored" to take on the new role because the U.N. agencies with which he would be coordinating -- the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development -- "are playing an influential role in the adoption of new biotechnologies and the agricultural aspects of global climate change negotiations, as well as their traditional role in leading U.N. efforts in global food security initiatives."

Ertharin Cousin, a Chicagoan who worked on President Obama's campaign, is the ambassador to the U.N. agencies.

In his e-mail, Michener said three officials to whom he had given substantial authority at FAS -- Suzanne Hale, Lona Stoll, Christine Turner and Michelle Mayorga -- "will continue to serve in their roles in the administrator's office."