The Administration

Why Trump needs a strong Agriculture secretary

Getty Images

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack dished out strong medicine to fellow Democrats in the wake of the 2016 election: Stop writing off rural America.

This advice came after President-elect Donald Trump racked up nearly 85 percent of the rural vote and 74 percent of the vote in small towns, while narrowly carrying the suburbs and medium-sized towns with 49 percent.

Vilsack’s is sound advice that Democrats should listen to.

But Republicans can also learn from the nation’s 30th Agriculture secretary.

{mosads}Although a secretary of Agriculture has a full plate just dealing with issues within the Department (USDA), there is so much more happening outside of USDA that affects the ability of America’s farmers and ranchers to make ends meet.

Today, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations — including the Waters of the U.S. and the Clean Power Plan, among many others simply too many to number here — continue to threaten huge costs and legal uncertainty for our nation’s farmers and ranchers.

Not to be outdone, the Interior and Labor Departments have also been busy churning out ill-conceived regulations, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of plentiful prairie chickens and dictating how farm kids may and may not help mom and dad around the family farm.

U.S. farm and ranch families also continue to face the predatory trading practices of major foreign competitors, including China, with global agricultural markets the most distorted sector in the world.

High and rising foreign subsidies, tariffs, non-tariff trade barriers and illegal below-cost dumping are not the exceptions, but the rules, commonly used by major trading partners to the detriment of American farm and ranch families.

Yet these predatory trade practices are only loosely catalogued and rarely enforced.

Energy policies that increase the cost of natural gas and fertilizer and lower farm income, tax policies that make it hard to keep the farm or ranch in the family from one generation to another, and a healthcare system that is making it very difficult for many self-employed farmers and ranchers to even find an insurance provider, much less affordable coverage, all add to the challenges of farming and ranching today.

And infrastructure issues facing farmers and ranchers, resulting in significantly lower prices received at the farm gate, help underscore the truth in President Kennedy’s quip that the farmer is the only man in our economy who has to buy everything he buys at retail, sell everything he sells at wholesale, and pay the freight both ways.

But, critical as these and many other issues are to America’s farmers and ranchers, trying to deal with them from the vantage point of rural America counts as extracurricular activity for a secretary of Agriculture.

For the secretary’s day job consists of administering farm policy; implementing conservation initiatives; promoting agricultural trade; ensuring food safety; carrying out international and domestic feeding programs; offering agricultural credit; providing critical rural infrastructure, including electrification, water and sewer, police, fire, and health facilities, and lifesaving telemedicine; supporting land-grant universities and vital research; as well as forestry, energy, horticulture, and livestock policies.

There can be no question as to the value of rural America’s contribution to the moral character of our great country, but there are significant economic contributions as well, with U.S. farmers and ranchers alone directly or indirectly responsible for 16 million American jobs.

USDA policies undergird these contributions. And, in carrying these policies out, Vilsack generally deserves high marks.

But, unfortunately for Democrats, when rural Americans went to the polls last November, they didn’t think of the secretary of Agriculture. Instead they thought of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and others in the Obama administration who turned a cold shoulder to the concerns in the countryside.

This in no way diminishes the record of Vilsack for his many successes, both inside and outside of USDA, on behalf or rural America, farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack facilitated the passage of the farm bill and ensured its effective and timely implementation. He managed challenges in farm country and worked to create opportunities for growth. And he successfully beat back a number of harmful regulations emanating from other departments and agencies — including a utopian one to end dust on the farm, of all things.

But, Vilsack could, as the saying goes, only explain agriculture to those in Washington.

He couldn’t understand it for them, too.

Vilsack’s reputation also certainly benefited by presiding over a period of fairly — although not uniformly — good economic conditions in farm and ranch country — that is, until more recently.

But being an unapologetically pro-agriculture secretary who is both proficient in the administration of USDA duties and no shrinking violet when it comes to matters affecting agriculture outside of USDA’s purview are what made him a standout.

But, sadly, if forecasts prove accurate, whomever Trump names as his secretary of Agriculture will not have the wind of strong commodity prices at his back. Net farm income is down 46 percent from just three years ago, constituting the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.

In this difficult environment, the new Agriculture secretary will also have a heavy lift before him: helping the first all-Republican government since 1954 write and pass a farm bill. It’s been 62 years, and farm bill rewrites have become a lot harder since the days of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Like now, in 1952 Republicans had won the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a long while.

And, like now, Republicans had good leaders in place on agriculture policy.

As a Kansan and the Allied commander in World War II who had seen firsthand the deprivations endured by those living in war-ravaged nations across the globe, and who once commented that, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield,” Ike liked farmers and farmers liked Ike.

For their parts, too, then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman George Aiken (R-Vt.) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Clifford Hope (R-Kan.) championed the cause of rural America and the nation’s farmers and ranchers.

But it was Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of Agriculture, who — much like McCarthy — would eclipse the rest of the players, insisting on a farm bill that would prove inadequate to the task in 1954.

Later the same year, the GOP would go on to lose both chambers of Congress, with congressional Republicans entering a political wilderness they would not come out of until 1981 in the Senate and 1995 in the House.

Two years later, in 1956, Congress worked to cure at least some of the defects of the previous farm bill amidst worsening conditions in farm country, with Hope asking in his House floor speech, “Will we at least do something to slow up this decline in farm income or will we let it continue to go down, down, down just as it did in the 1920s?”

Congress’s answer was “yes,” but Bensons was “no.”

Benson urged a presidential veto, and Ike obliged.

By the time Benson left office, the Democrats had gained near veto-proof supermajorities in both the House and the Senate.

In most elections, rural America, farmers, and ranchers are chalked off as too small to affect the outcome.

But, every now and again, they prove that theory wrong.

While the lessons taught by Vilsack and Benson are political in nature, fortunately the politics of supporting agriculture make good sense.

Farming and ranching make critical contributions to the economies of communities that dot my old congressional district in West Texas and so much of the American landscape.

But, to a good many of us, the ancient and honorable profession of agriculture means something far greater than its economic contributions, as important as they are.

In a letter to John Jay in 1785, Thomas Jefferson expressed an opinion of those who work the land that some mock but still reflects the view of many of us in the forgotten places in America:

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

A lot of what Washington does is harmful to American agriculture. And, what good it does costs very little, though farmers and ranchers would gladly cede even that if Mother Nature were more cooperative and if foreign trading partners could ever shoot straight.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence understood this very well when we served together on the House Agriculture Committee and whipped for passage of the 2002 farm bill.

President-elect Trump needs a strong secretary of Agriculture who gets that, too.

Larry Combest represented the 19th Congressional District of Texas from 1985 to 2002 and chaired the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Agriculture Committee. He is now a principal at Combest Sell & Associates.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Gina McCarthy Mike Pence Tom Vilsack

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video