Even if it weren't for the war in the Persian Gulf, the public likely wouldn't be paying much attention to agriculture these days.

That's because there's no big agriculture crisis, no farm bill in Washington waiting to be finished, and no upheavals in farm policy. What's more, trade talks are going nowhere, droughts are dwindling, and worries about food shortages have virtually disappeared.Even so, grain prices are low, budget problems are mounting, and new farm programs need implementation. Understandably, then, farmers still have ample reasons for wanting a strong advocate in the Bush administration.

That's exactly what they seem likely to get with the nomination of Rep. Edward Madigan of Illinois to replace Clayton Yeutter, new chairman of the Republican National Committee, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Plenty of challenges face the new secretary. He will have to balance the competing demands of implementing the 1990 farm program, which has been criticized by some farmers, and help find new overseas markets for American farm products at a time when there has been a global glut of many crops.

As an 18-year member of Congress from a rural district in central Illinois, Madigan has a good grasp of farm programs, food safety, and nutrition issues. He is an architect of the 1990 farm program that will govern U.S. agriculture for the next five years. He enjoys close relationships with farm and commodity groups in most states. And he has been active on environmental issues as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Respected by Democrats as well as his fellow Republicans, Madigan seems assured of approval when his nomination comes before the Senate. He also has the sort of gruff, no-nonsense demeanor that should play well with farmers.

The new secretary can use all the help he can get. The present lull on the farm front can't be expected to become a permanent fixture. It likely won't be long before agriculture issues are back to a vigorous boil.