Vilsack Tapped for Ag Secretary

Ag Groups Largely Praise Nomination, But Progressives and Minority Leaders Disappointed

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Agricultural groups overall have praised Tom Vilsack for his earlier stint as USDA secretary. As expected, President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday nominated Vilsack to return to the job. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Despite criticism from Black leaders and progressives, President-elect Joe Biden announced Thursday that his administration will nominate Tom Vilsack to return to USDA as Agriculture secretary.

Biden's transition team announced multiple cabinet posts on Thursday, including naming Katherine Tai as nominee for U.S. Trade ambassador and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Also named were Denis McDonough as secretary of Veteran Affairs and former Ambassador Susan Rice as director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Biden will hold an event Friday with the latest slate of nominees. As recovery begins on the coronavirus pandemic, Biden's transition team stated the latest round of nominees "Will bring the highest level of expertise and bold vision to help all Americans seize new opportunities and build back better."

Vilsack, who turns 70 next week, was former President Barack Obama's longest-serving cabinet member, leading USDA from 2009 to 2107. He was a two-term governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007.

Most major agriculture and nutrition leaders praised reports that Biden had chosen Vilsack, though groups representing Black farmers and other civil rights leaders criticized Vilsack's selection. Progressive groups, including unions, had backed Fudge for the Agriculture secretary post. The news website Politico reported minority employees, including Lloyd Wright, a former USDA director of civil rights, wrote Biden asking him to reconsider Vilsack's nomination.

"When it came to issues of race, he was one of the worst I've ever come in contact with. What we don't want is Vilsack to come back," Wright said to Politico. "A reshuffling of the department leadership from four years ago will not do us any more good than what we have now. We didn't gain anything under Vilsack."

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said too little had been done under Vilsack's tenure to address a long history of discrimination against Black farmers. Those challenges for Black farmers have continued under the Trump administration, he said. "Mr. Vilsack as secretary must expand Black farmer access to land and credit and reform USDA's income support and insurance programs to end systemic discrimination," Boyd said. "He must create outreach programs to help Black farmers participate in these programs and lift the veil of secrecy that hides the true extent of racial discrimination at USDA. I stand ready to work with Secretary Vilsack to meet these challenges -- and to hold him accountable."

Still, most major agricultural groups praised Vilsack's earlier tenure at USDA. Zippy Duvall, president of the Republican-leaning American Farm Bureau, welcomed the news that Tom Vilsack will be nominated to be secretary of Agriculture.

"Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand," Duvall said. "He believes in a 'big tent' philosophy that supports all types of production and understands the importance of respecting farmers and ranchers as partners worthy of support in the race to achieve sustainability goals."

Duvall and other agricultural leaders had already started engaging the Biden transition team on different challenges facing farmers.

"Together, we must prepare to tackle a new farm bill and build on efforts to create a fair marketplace for U.S. agriculture to compete globally. It is essential we ensure climate policies respect farmers and remain market-based and voluntary. And, we must end the digital divide that puts rural America at a disadvantage.

"Tom Vilsack earned a reputation for rising above partisanship to serve farmers and ranchers, and I'm confident he'll continue to do so. The American Farm Bureau stands ready to support Tom and work closely with him knowing his success as secretary of agriculture correlates directly with America's farmers and ranchers, as well as our rural communities, having the support they need to flourish."

United Fresh Produce Association CEO Tom Stenzel said his group had worked with Vilsack in the past to broaden access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially for children.

"There is no shortage of issues to work on over the next four years -- from trade to climate change," Stenzel said. "Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that we have experienced leaders who can hit the ground running to ensure that there is a seamless transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, including making sure that the supply chain is utilized to address the immense and immediate food insecurity needs being faced around the country -- and there is no one more familiar with how to make USDA work for the American people than Tom Vilsack."

Biofuel groups including the Renewable Fuels Association and the American Coalition for Ethanol also issued statements congratulating Vilsack on the nomination.

"Secretary Vilsack was the most effective advocate the biofuels industry had in the Obama administration and we are excited about working with him again, particularly with helping get the RFS back on track, continued infrastructure support for higher ethanol blends, and making sure farmers and biofuel producers are part of the solution to future policies designed to tackle climate change," said Brian Jennings CEO of the American Coalition for Ethanol.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) CEO Colin Woodall said Vilsack "has the unique skill set to be able to hit the ground running on day one, and cattle producers are thankful for this continuity. Secretary Vilsack knows the issues facing America's cattle producers and can utilize his extensive experience to showcase the positive impact we have on food security, nutrition, and our natural resources. We look forward to working with him for the betterment of beef farmers and ranchers."

Howard "AV" Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council, and a farmer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, noted Vilsack comes from Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the country. Roth pointed out issues important to pork producers right now, including expanding exports and strengthening biosecurity at the U.S. borders to ensure African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases are kept out of the country.

National Association of Wheat Growers President and Cass City, Michigan, wheat farmer Dave Milligan said Vilsack understands policies important to wheat. Milligan added Vilsack also was willing in his earlier tenure to meet with and listen to farmers and other stakeholders about USDA programs and regulations.

"Former Secretary Vilsack's wealth of experience and his knowledge of agriculture are important attributes for this role," Milligan said.

Groups such as the Humane Society stated Vilsack had worked to regulate puppy breeders and prohibit the slaughter of downer calves, as well as worked to strengthen animal-welfare standards on organic farmers But Sara Amundson, legislative fund president for the Humane Society of the United States, said Vilsack was "too deferential to Big Ag and factory farming — a striking cause of climate change and a root problem for farm animal welfare. We'll be asking him to confront the worst elements of intensive confinement agriculture and related challenges."

Other groups, such as Friends of the Earth, said they were "deeply disappointed" in Biden choosing Vilsack, describing the former secretary as an "agribusiness lobbyist" because of his current job as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

"We hope that Secretary Vilsack has learned from his checkered first term at the USDA and will this time take on the agribusiness lobby that dominates the agency," said Kari Hamerschlag, a deputy director for Friends of the Earth. "In order to implement Biden's climate and racial justice agenda, Vilsack must be willing to transform the USDA to support a more diversified, regenerative, healthy and just food system. He must ensure economic justice for independent and BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] farmers, protections for food workers, and access to healthy food for every American."

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Chris Clayton