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The Hill Interview: Vilsack touts infrastructure for rural US

The Hill Interview: Vilsack touts infrastructure for rural US
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Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said the Biden administration’s sweeping infrastructure package would be a big victory for rural American by delivering high-speed broadband to the nation’s small towns and communities. 

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill, Vilsack, whose nomination drew opposition from some liberal groups over his lobbying ties, also spoke about his focus on helping Black farmers by breaking down systemic barriers.

And he said his department is working at improving a meatpacking industry and food supply chain hit hard by the pandemic.

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But the secretary’s emphasis at the outset was how President BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE’s next legislative package would well-serve rural America, which largely voted for former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE in the last election. One of Vilsack’s jobs is to sell the package in Trump country. 

“Everybody likes and needs and understands the importance of expanding broadband,” he said when asked about his pitch. 

“Whether you’re a farmer who’s interested in precision agriculture with drones and sensors … or you’re a teacher that would love to have the ability to provide distance learning opportunities for your students, or you’re a doc who wants the ability to consult with an expert who is 200 miles away with telemedicine, or … you’re a farmer who wants to have real time market information, all of that is dependent on broadband,” he added. 

Biden’s $2.3 trillion package invests $100 billion in expanding access to broadband, which the White House says will help the nation reach 100 percent coverage. 

“To the extent that we’re going to invest and expand opportunities to really link up rural America and to link it up with broadband that matters — high speed broadband — big deal, very big deal,” he said. 

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, said broadband can fuel smart agriculture and opportunity in rural America. 

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“Secretary Vilsack is absolutely right — applications like precision agriculture, remote learning and telehealth can be game changers for rural communities but all depend on reliable, fast broadband connectivity,” she said. “I look forward to working with him ... to ensure that any infrastructure proposal includes robust support for high-quality, affordable broadband service in rural communities using future-proof technologies like fiber that stand the test of time.” 

Vilsack, 70, was sworn in in February after running the Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Obama administration. He is also the former governor of Iowa. 

A number of progressive groups wanted former Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeCarter sworn in as House member to replace Richmond, padding Democrats' majority HHS, HUD team up to extend COVID-19 vaccine access in vulnerable communities Iowa governor signs law allowing landlords to refuse Section 8 vouchers MORE (D-Ohio) to get Vilsack’s job, but she was confirmed instead as Housing and Urban Development secretary. 

Vilsack pointed to Dewayne Goldmon, who is the first senior adviser for racial equity appointed at the USDA, when asked about the push for an African American secretary. He said Goldmon is “connected to the Black farming community” and is providing advice and counsel. 

Vilsack noted that the USDA is no longer dealing with specific acts of discrimination in farming, which led to tens of thousands of claims during the Obama administration against the department. He is focused on the bigger picture. 

“We’re now taking a look at the more systemic barriers and the accumulative effect of discrimination,” he said.  

He advocated for debt relief provisions in the COVID-19 package signed into law by Biden, which includes provisions for the USDA to pay up to 120 percent of loan balances for debt relief to disadvantaged producers. Debt relief has started the process to create more diversity in agriculture, he said. 

“Debt relief is designed to respond to the accumulative effect — respond to that gap — and to begin the process ... to make sure that we have great diversity throughout agriculture in terms of who’s farming, in terms of how they farm, in terms of the size of their farm, in term of what is growing. The greater the diversity, the greater the resilience,” he said. 

Progressive groups that had opposed Vilsack’s nomination are encouraged by his focus on Black farmers. 

“As an organization dedicated to addressing the climate crisis through a justice lens, we applaud Sec. Vilsack’s advocacy for the support and protection of the livelihoods of Black farmers. That said, the provisions in the American Rescue Plan should be the floor in addressing systemic racism in the farming sector, not the ceiling,” said JL Andrepont, a spokesperson for the climate group 350.org, which had opposed Vilsack’s nomination. 

Vilsack inherited the challenge of addressing meatpacking plants that had become COVID-19 hot spots. More than 290 meatpacking plant workers have died from COVID-19, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. 

Vilsack said that he doesn’t think the issue of safety at meatpacking plants is resolved yet.

“We’re obviously seeing more people in these facilities being vaccinated, which is obviously a positive effort, one that reflects ... a final recognition and realization of the need to take COVID seriously, which I don’t think some in the meatpacking industry had at the beginning of COVID. I think they were lulled into a false sense of thinking this was no big deal and it turned out to be a very big deal and the result was, of course, significant disruption in the marketplace,” he said. 

Major meatpacking companies touted their progress on vaccines for workers. Tyson Foods said nearly 40,000 employees have been vaccinated, which is one-third of its U.S. workforce. JBS said well over half of its workforce has been vaccinated.

Vilsack argues the U.S. has turned the  corner on marketplace disruptions and thinks focusing on smaller processing plants can help make the system more resilient if there are future disruptions. 

“That’s going to lead us in part to a belief that there’s more that can be done for smaller processing capacity, whether it’s to help existing smaller processing capacity [or] improve their market opportunities by investing in improvements in their facilities,” he said.