Nearly 130 agricultural and food groups wrote the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday asking for immediate confirmation of Tom Vilsack as secretary of Agriculture.
As of early Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not scheduled a hearing for his confirmation.
In their letter, the groups noted, "Our associations represent the vast majority of the food and agriculture sector that is responsible for roughly one-fifth of the country's economic activity, directly supporting more than 23 million jobs -- constituting nearly 15% of total U.S. employment."
The groups assed that Vilsack understands USDA's mission to advance food and agriculture for the benefit of the country and exports. Because of that, each of the groups endorses Vilsack's nomination "not just because of his previous outstanding eight-year tenure in the post during the Obama administration, but more importantly because of his vision for meeting the substantial current challenges of food and agriculture. Secretary Vilsack is ready to lead the peoples' department and American food and agriculture broadly to meeting environmental challenges, enhance diversity and inclusion, strengthen food security, and build rural prosperity through expanded trade and development of the bioeconomy, all with broad consumer benefits."
With Democrats taking control of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., becomes chair of the committee and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., becomes the ranking member.
President Biden on Wednesday also named Kevin Shea the Agriculture Department acting secretary until Vilsack is confirmed.
Shea has been administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service since 2013.
“In his role as the APHIS administrator, Mr. Shea carries out the agency's multiple missions of protecting the health and value of American agriculture; mitigating the impact of human-wildlife conflict to protect agriculture, environmental, and human health and safety; ensuring the safe and timely availability of new genetically engineered technologies; and administering the Animal Welfare and Horse Protections Acts,” according to his official biography.
In addition to his APHIS duties, during 2016 Shea served as the USDA transition director and from January 20 through October 31, 2017, served as the acting deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
Before becoming administrator, Shea served as the associate administrator from 2004 to 2012; the deputy administrator for policy and program development from 2000 to 2004; and director of budget and accounting from 1992 to 2000.
The Biden administration also announced a series of other appointments at USDA. None of the positions require Senate confirmation and therefore the appointees can go to work immediately.
Gregory Parham, interim deputy assistant secretary for administration: Parham, a veterinarian, served as assistant secretary for administration from 2013-2016. Previously, he served as administrator of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Prior to that, Parham served as APHIS' associate administrator and deputy administrator for marketing and regulatory programs, business services. He joined USDA in 1982 and has worked for several agencies. Parham holds a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and doctorate and bachelor's degrees from Ohio State University.
Katharine Ferguson, chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary: Most recently, Ferguson served as associate director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group. Before joining the Aspen Institute, Ferguson served in the Obama administration as chief of staff for the White House Domestic Policy Council and as chief of staff for rural development at USDA. Ferguson also worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee and as staff to several U.S. senators. Originally from Colorado, she is a graduate of Tufts University and holds an MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
Robert Bonnie, deputy chief of staff for policy and senior adviser, climate, in the Office of the Secretary: Most recently, Bonnie served as an executive in residence at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Previously, he served as director of the Farm and Forests Carbon Solutions Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he worked to develop new initiatives to combat the climate crisis through agricultural innovation. During the Obama administration, he served as undersecretary for natural resources and environment and as a senior adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for climate and the environment. He worked at the Environmental Defense Fund for 14 years. Bonnie holds a master's degree in forestry and environmental management from Duke University, and a bachelor's from Harvard University.
Sara Bleich, senior adviser, COVID-19, in the Office of the Secretary: Previously, Bleich served as a professor of public health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research centers on food insecurity, as well as racial injustice within the social safety net. From 2015-2016, she served as a White House fellow in the Obama administration, where she worked in USDA as a senior policy adviser for food, nutrition and consumer services. Bleich holds a Ph.D in health policy from Harvard University and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Columbia University.
Kumar Chandran, senior adviser, nutrition, in the Office of the Secretary: Most recently, Chandran was policy director for FoodCorps and led the Washington, D.C., office. Prior to that, he served as chief of staff to Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon in the Obama administration. Prior to his tenure at USDA, Chandran served at the national nonprofit Share Our Strength.
Justo Robles, White House liaison in the Office of the Secretary: Prior to joining USDA, Robles served as Georgia deputy coalitions director for Biden for President. Previously, he was deputy director and chief of staff for Energy Independence Now, a national nonprofit advocating for clean energy. In the Obama administration, Robles served as advance lead in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, among other positions in the Department of Defense.
Matt Herrick, communications director: Herrick was communications director for Vilsack in the Obama administration and for U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah. Most recently, Herrick has been senior vice president for executive and strategic communications for the International Dairy Foods Association. Before that, he was communications director for the Rockefeller Foundation and a senior vice president of Story Partners. He has also been a communications official for Oxfam America. Earlier in his career, Herrick served as speechwriter and spokesperson for USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. A native of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, Herrick holds a bachelor of arts from the College of the Holy Cross and a master of arts from Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.
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