The most avid political junkies probably couldn’t name five U.S. agriculture secretaries; Tom Vilsack, the current occupant of the post, may be about to join that short list.

The farm sector is one of the few bright spots in a rough U.S. economy. Vilsack, the popular former governor of Iowa, who has an appreciation of policy and politics, is one of the success stories of the Obama administration.
Usually, the Agriculture Department, started under Abraham Lincoln and celebrating its 150th birthday this year, is a backwater that serves to pacify disgruntled farmers. The most memorable secretaries owe their prominence to controversy. Henry Wallace, a creative force in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration before he became FDR’s vice president, later became a left-wing challenger to President Harry Truman during the Cold War; Earl Butz, who was secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was forced out after uttering racist and anti- Catholic jokes.