OMAHA (DTN) -- Tom Vilsack received a strong vote of confidence in the U.S. Senate from Republicans as President Joe Biden's pick for agriculture secretary was confirmed with a 92-7 vote on Tuesday.
Vilsack, 70, received strong bi-partisan support in his confirmation vote even as his nomination drew criticism in some progressive circles. Among the GOP backers were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Voting against Vilsack's confirmation were Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, also voted to oppose Vilsack.
AG ECONOMY RECOVERING
The new secretary comes in with the agricultural economy recovering due to higher commodity prices, driven by higher exports to China. USDA last week forecast record farm exports and higher cash receipts for commodities in 2021. Farm income will fall this year, though, because government payments to farmers are expected to dial back.
Vilsack served as USDA secretary from 2009 to 2017 under the Obama administration. His nomination by Biden drew criticism from groups representing Black and other minority farmers, who say Vilsack did not do enough to ensure equality in farm programs during his first tenure.
In his statement after confirmation, Vilsack thanked the president and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as the Senate for the show of support.
"I look forward to leading the talented, dedicated team at the Department of Agriculture. We're going to be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans," he said.
LOT OF WORK AHEAD
"We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America's food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America. I am optimistic about the future and believe our brightest days are ahead," Vilsack added.
Affecting producers, an early decision for Vilsack will be whether to reinstate Coronavirus Food and Agriculture Program (CFAP) payments. USDA suspended processing and payments under CFAP last month to conduct a review of the program. Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee have called on the department to begin paying out CFAP aid again.
Congress approved the aid package in December, but among the programs included in the bill is a provision providing $20 an acre aid to non-specialty crop producers. Livestock producers are also provided up to 80% reimbursement for euthanized animals during the pandemic.
REACTION BY AG GROUPS
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he and Vilsack had spoken several times in recent weeks about challenges facing farmers and ranchers.
"We have a lot of work to do as we overcome obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must commit to resuming CARES Act programs and continue to build on advances made in trade," Duvall said.
Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, said no one is more qualified to lead USDA than Vilsack, and there is no shortage of things that need to get done, especially in prioritizing pandemic recovery.
"That means ensuring that all Americans have access to food, providing farmers of all types and sizes with the relief they need to stay in business, helping rural hospitals treat critically ill patients and distribute vaccines, and protecting workers across the food chain from COVID-19," Larew said.
DIFFERENT PERSON, DIFFERENT DEPARTMENT
During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Vilsack addressed some of the issues raised by critics. Vilsack said he had to recognize it is a different time, he is "a different person" and "it is a different department." Vilsack said the country faces a series of "why not opportunities" in agriculture, in the food industry and in rural America.
"In rural America -- which holds a special claim to USDA's mission -- we must build back better, stronger, and more resilient and equitably than ever before. We have the world's most productive and innovative farmers. But the farm economy is suffering due to the pandemic, years of consolidation, and natural disasters brought on by climate change," Vilsack said during his hearing.
Biden has committed to shift the U.S. economy to net-zero emissions by 2050 and Vilsack has repeatedly said he supports Biden's goals. The Biden administration's plans to engage every federal agency will include a significant role for agriculture that Vilsack will oversee. Vilsack said he sees aggressive climate action providing the U.S. a competitive advantage in areas such as trade.
COMMITTED TO VOLUNTARY MOVES
During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack also committed to Congress that moves on climate involving farmers will be voluntary. Agricultural groups stating they support action on climate change still repeatedly note the fear of regulation remains an issue in the countryside. Vilsack said farmers and ranchers should be paid for reducing emissions through a market for carbon sequestration.
"If it's voluntary and incentive based, you will see farmers and ranchers cooperate extensively," he said.
So far, it's unclear which programs USDA will directly tie to climate-smart agriculture, but the Biden administration is considering crafting programs with the Commodity Credit Corp., (CCC), an annual appropriations fund of $30 billion that the Trump administration used to offset trade retaliation from China. Former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue created the Market Facilitation Program and used CCC funds for a portion of the CFAP aid. MFAP and CFAP boosted farm income by tens of billions of dollars from 2018 through last year.
Republicans who voted to confirm Vilsack said afterwards he must be an advocate for farmers and ranchers in the new administration. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has warned repeatedly that the Biden administration must not aggressively push for electric vehicles over biofuels.
"If Secretary Vilsack decides to give into the liberal left -- their policies that would hurt animal agriculture and devastate our biofuel industry and the RFS -- Iowans will remember. I expect Mr. Vilsack to do the right thing for farm country, and I will certainly hold him to that," Ernst said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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