Stephen Vaden is another step closer to Senate confirmation as USDA’s top lawyer. The Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday approved the controversial nominee 14-7, sending his nomination to the full Senate. Several Democrats have raised concerns about briefs Vaden helped file in defense of voter registration laws in North Carolina and Ohio while working for the Jones Day law firm. He has also been criticized for personnel decisions he’s made in his current position as de facto head of USDA’s Office of General Counsel. Still, he can be confirmed with a simple majority in the Senate and with no Democratic support.

There’s been a shakeup at the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp. Farmer Mac’s board of directors abruptly fired Timothy Buzby, who’d been president and CEO of the government-sponsored enterprise since 2012. The board did not say why he was fired, other than that he’d violated policies “unrelated to the company’s financial and business performance.”  Lowell Junkins, who’s been board chairman since 2010, was named acting president and CEO.

South Dakota soybean farmer Lewis Bainbridge has been elected chair of the United Soybean Board (USB), which administers the soy checkoff. Nine directors were also elected to the USB executive committee. They are: Keith Tapp, vice chair – Kentucky; Jim Carroll, secretary – Arkansas; Dan Farney, treasurer – Illinois; John Dodson – Tennessee; Gregg Fujan – Nebraska; Woody Green – South Carolina; Meagan Kaiser – Missouri; Rochelle Krusemark – Minnesota; and Mark Seib – Indiana.

More Soybean News: The board of the American Soybean Association elected John Heisdorffer of Keota, Iowa, as ASA’s president for 2018. Heisdorffer raises soybeans, corn and hogs with his wife Deanna and son Chris. He replaces Ron Moore of Illinois, who moves to the role of ASA chairman. The ASA board also elected Davie Stephens of Kentucky as vice president, placing him in line to serve as the association's president in 2019. In addition, Kevin Scott of South Dakota was elected secretary; Bill Gordon of Minnesota was re-elected treasurer. Bret Davis of Ohio, Eric Maupin of Tennessee, Joe Steinkamp of Indiana, and Charles Atkinson of Kansas were chosen as at-large governing committee members.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall has been appointed to the White House’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations for a four-year term.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has named Anne Idsal, the chief clerk and deputy land commissioner for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), administrator for EPA’s Region 6, which covers Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico. Before joining GLO, Idsal served as general counsel to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Pruitt says Idsal has spent her career “working to shape environmental and land policy for the Lone Star State, and her experience in the region makes her exceptionally qualified to provide administrative leadership for Region 6.”

The National Biodiesel Board hired Kurt Kovarik, a senior adviser and legislative director with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as its vice president of federal affairs, starting Jan. 8. Kovarik joined Grassley’s staff as a press intern in 1997. In addition to his work on budget, labor and foreign affairs, Kovarik led Grassley's efforts on the inclusion of biodiesel in the Renewable Fuel Standard, developed strategies to expand and extend the biodiesel tax incentive, and advocated increased use of biofuels through oversight activities.

Savonne Caughey, a former senior advisor to USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, has been hired as the new director of government affairs with the Pet Industry Advisory Council. Caughey also has held high-level government relations and public affairs positions with the American Heart Association and Elanco Animal Health, in addition to USDA where she worked from 2007-2009.

CropLife America hired Doreen L. Manchester as deputy general counsel, where she will help lead federal and state litigation to support pesticide regulatory issues. Before coming to CLA, Manchester was a member of Venable LLP’s Regulatory Group, where she represented a wide variety of clients including manufacturers of various food, dietary supplements, and medical devices, as well as an edible-oil trade association.

The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research has honored eight early-career scientists with its New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research awards. FFAR is providing $2.4 million for the awards. Matching funds from each awardee’s respective institution will double that amount over five years, allowing each new innovator up to $600,000 to pursue his or her research. Hannah Holscher, University of Illinois, and Maya Vadiveloo, University of Rhode Island, will be researching nutrition and healthy food choices. Sotirios Archontoulis, Iowa State University, will investigate how to optimize agricultural water use. Markita Landry, University of California, Berkeley; Kranthi Mandadi, Texas A&M; and Diwakar Shukla, University of Illinois, will research plant efficiency. Jonas King, Mississippi State University, will consider how to spur food system innovation, and Steven Culman, Ohio State, will research soil health.

The National Sorghum Producers named Delanie Crist as its new communication coordinator. A recent graduate of Texas Tech University where she earned a master’s degree in agricultural communications, Crist will also serve as associate editor for Sorghum Grower magazine.

Plant biologist Joanne Chory, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, was awarded a 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences “because of her pioneering work discovering how plants optimize their growth, development and cellular structure to transform sunlight into chemical energy.” The award, and the $3 million cash prize that goes with it, was presented recently at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. The award was founded in 2013 by Silicon Valley luminaries Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner to honor top achievements in life sciences, physics, and mathematics.

Andrea Thorpe was named vice president of commercial and agribusiness underwriting at Bloomington, Illinois-based COUNTRY Financial. The Illinois State alum is replacing Sheri Bane who’s retiring in January.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has appointed three members to serve three-year terms on the Mushroom Council: Curtis Jurgensmeyer, Miami, Okla.; Joe W. Caldwell, Reading, Pa.; and Jane Irene Rhyno, Ontario, Canada. The Council is one of 22 industry-funded research and promotion boards authorized by Congress.

The Association of American Railroads says Kristin Smith will succeed Patricia Reilly as the organization’s senior vice president for communications. Reilly is retiring at the end of the year. Smith has been with AAR since 2010, and was recently promoted to VP, communications. Reilly has overseen AAR’s communications since 2008.

Our condolences go out to the family of farmer Ryan Miller and his father Rory Miller who were killed Dec. 5 when they struck a natural gas pipeline while laying tile on a field near Dixon, Illinois. The family includes Jon Scholl, an instructor on ag policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose sister Jill Miller, was married to Ryan. Scholl, a former president of American Farmland Trust and counsel to the administrator of the EPA, said Ryan was “so much more than an in-law – he was a pillar of our family…He was a friend, a role model, and a brother in every sense of those words.”

Bob Delano, a former Virginia Farm Bureau president who went on to become president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, died Dec. 5 at the age of 93. A World War II vet and a farmer from Richmond County, Virginia, he was elected president of the Virginia Farm Bureau in 1962 and held that position for 18 years. In 1980, he was elected president of the AFBF, the world’s largest agricultural organization, representing over 3.3 million farm families.