For opponents of the budget-busting and inequitable system of federal farm subsidies, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for agriculture secretary could deliver mixed results. For believers in free trade, his choice for U.S. trade representative looks like nothing but good news.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE has called for reforming the system that pays billions of dollars a year to growers of select crops. Currently, prosperous commercial farms make out better than struggling family farmers. As the ex-chief executive of one of the nation's leading farm states, Mr. Vilsack could have the credibility and clout to persuade Congress to impose limits on subsidies, including income caps.

But Mr. Vilsack, whose state has been the nation's leading corn producer, has been a big supporter of subsidies for corn-based ethanol. Studies show that corn-based ethanol yields only slightly more energy than it takes to produce. And the rising share of corn production devoted to ethanol has driven up food prices of all kinds, including livestock fed with corn.

Americans' wallets and the need for energy independence would be much better served by lifting the tariff on sugar-cane-based ethanol from Brazil. Hopefully, Mr. Vilsack will come around to that realization. ...