(Dec. 19) When then-Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns was tabbed by President Bush in late 2004 to be agriculture secretary, one of the qualities that agriculture leaders in Nebraska praised him for was his listening ear.

That trait has been on brilliant display in 2005. Johanns has listened and responded to the needs of the citrus industry in Florida as it deals with the aftermath of hurricanes and canker.

Even more impressively, he also has participated in 22 farm bill listening sessions across the country since July.

Johanns has heard the needs of the produce industry as it relates to the next farm bill, and he readily acknowledges the industry wants to be a bigger part of farm policy.

How the farm bill fleshes itself out remains to be seen, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congress and the produce industry have yet to spell out exactly what they want.

One encouraging aspect of Johanns’ interaction with the industry, however, is his view that the agency is trying to help Americans eat more fruits and vegetables.

From the release of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans to the introduction of the agency’s new food pyramid earlier in the year, Johanns continues to say the right things about how the agency wants to reflect the latest science in dietary guidance.

Johanns and the USDA will soon have the opportunity to show that they not only listen, but also act, according to those principles.

He has already been pressured by dairy interests and some members of Congress to quash changes to the Women, Infants and Children food packages that would allow fruit and vegetable vouchers.

Johanns needs to show he means what he says about the agency’s direction by publishing a proposed rule that would establish vouchers for fruits and vegetables.

The groundwork laid by advocates to changes to the WIC food package — notably by the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association — should prove reassuring to the agency as it moves ahead with a needed, if controversial, change.