Tom Vilsack (file photo) President-elect Barack Obama says he’s asked former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to “serve as a guardian of the American landscape.”

“It means ensuring that the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agriculture or Washington influence peddlers, but family farmers and the American people,” Obama said during a news conference in Chicago this morning to formally announce Vilsack as his choice to be the next United States Secretary of Agriculture.

“To lead a Department of Agriculture that helps unlock the potential of a 21st Century agricultural economy I can think of no one better than Tom Vilsack,” Obama said. “As governor of one of our most abundant farm states he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use. Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home.”

Vilsack promised to work “aggressively” to fulfill Obama’s vision for the U.S.D.A. “Thank you, Mr. President-elect, for the confidence you have placed in me and I look forward to the challenge,” Vilsack said.

Sounding as if he was already speaking on behalf of the agency and its workers, Vilsack acknowledged lean budget times are ahead for the U.S.D.A. “It must be innovative and creative in all its work during a time of economic anxiety and limited resources,” Vilsack said.  “Yes, Mr. President-elect, you have challenged the department and the hardworking and dedicated people who work in that department will meet that challenge.”

Vilsack spoke for less than two minutes and briefly mentioned his work as a “small town lawyer” for farmers during the depths of the farm crisis of the 1980s.  “I know these people. America’s farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us everyday. I hope to be that secretary,” Vilsack said, “I look forward to working with congressional leaders who share the president-elect’s vision of bringing hope to rural America, of being good stewards of our natural resources, of providing American leadership on climate change and making America a nation truly dedicated to health and nutrition.”

Three weeks ago Vilsack told a Des Moines Register reporter he had not been contacted by the Obama transition team about the post and didn’t expect to be named ag secretary. Obama was asked what had changed since Vilsack made those statements. “I don’t know who led him to believe that,” Obama said. “Whoever did obviously was misinformed, because here he stands.”

Obama praised Vilsack as “forward looking” and “fiercely protective” of the family farmer. “Tom Vilsack has been a leader among governors when it comes to clean energy, when it comes to agriculture,” Obama said. “Obviously, if you don’t know agriculture, you’re not going to be the governor of Iowa.” Vilsack, who was standing to Obama’s right before a room of cameras and reporters, chuckled to punctuate Obama’s point.

Vilsack flew to Chicago this morning for the announcement. Obama, Vilsack and Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar spent less than 20 minutes in front of the cameras and reporters before exiting the stage.