WASHINGTON - Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the daughter of a California peach farmer and the first woman ag secretary, has resigned from the post, according to press reports.

The White House announced the President had accepted Veneman's resignation along with those of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Veneman is expected to remain on the job until her successor is chosen. Among potential replacements are former House Agriculture Committee Chairman and Texas Congressman Larry Combest, fellow Texan and former ranking member on the House Ag Committee Charlie Stenholm; Ambassador Allen Johnson, chief agricultural negotiator with the U.S. Trade Representative's office and White House agriculture advisor Chuck Conner.

The resignation came as a surprise to Washington observers who thought Veneman would be one of the holdovers from the current administration.

An attorney and expert on trade issues, Veneman steadily advanced through the ranks of the USDA beginning with a stint with the Foreign Agriculture Service in 1986. In 1991 she served as USDA’s deputy secretary, followed by a period as Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 1995 until 1999.

“There has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks about whether she would serve another term,” said Mark Bagby, director of communications for Calcot Ltd., in Bakersfield, Calif.

She made it clear she would like to serve a second term, but it is also clear, said Bagby, with almost of half of President Bush’s cabinet resigning within a few weeks of his election victory that the “President is making a bunch of changes.”

Bagby said Stenholm would be a welcome nominee by California cotton producers as would Combest, who represented the district around Lubbock before resigning from Congress in 2002. “We hear he may be ready to go back to Washington."

Combest and Stenholm are generally credited with writing the 2002 farm bill, and are both close to production agriculture, reportedly a priority for the President in the next administration. One of the criticisms that dogged Veneman throughout her tenure was that she never seemed to fight for farmers.

Stenholm’s appointment would give Bush the opportunity to reach across the political aisle for Democratic support -- if the President can win the approve of House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Some have said the Texas Republican's redistricting plan was targeted at preventing Stenholm from winning re-election. Stenholm lost to freshman Congressman Randy Neugebauer one Nov. 2.

While Veneman was a recognized expert on trade rules, she was forced to confront issues that no other agriculture secretary has had to deal with, according to Washington observers. Among those were the specter of agro-terrorism, the threat of hoof-and-mouth disease entering the country, the detection of BSE in Canada and the United States and several other food safety challenges. “She also had to deal with the difficult tasks of implementing the 2002 farm bill and helping to keep a new round of international trade talks on track,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Veneman also was an advocate for strong pest and disease, food safety and research programs, as well as a promoter of USDA education programs, noted by the “Leaders of Tomorrow” initiative.

e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com