Energy & Environment

Vilsack gets lukewarm response as Biden Agriculture pick from those seeking reformed USDA

Haiyun Jiang

News that President-elect Joe Biden has picked former Obama administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to run the agency anew has drawn disappointment from some who felt he was too aligned with major agriculture corporations during his previous stint.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who served eight years at the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), would come to the job from his current role as president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a major dairy lobby.

Large agriculture groups, from the more conservative-learning Farm Bureau to the more left-leaning Farmers Union, and a host of commodity groups have largely praised the return of a familiar face that was easy to work with.

“Should he be confirmed, he will be no stranger to the important issues facing the meat and poultry industry and all of U.S. agriculture,” National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said in a statement.

But those who would like to see the USDA take on a greater role in fighting food insecurity, climate change and racial inequality, expressed either disappointment in the pick or advised Vilsack to approach the position differently the second time around. 

The Farmer’s Union, which said Vilsack had the “necessary qualifications and experience,” ticked off a list of reforms — from protecting farmers from anticompetitive practices to advancing racial equity in agriculture — that Vilsack would need to tackle.

“The Secretary’s obligation is not just to serve farmers; it’s also to serve the American public at large” the union said. 

A source familiar with Biden’s thinking said Vilsack was a good choice to lead the department as rural America reels from the trade war and economic fallout of the virus.

“The President-Elect was eager to nominate someone with experience and who is prepared to step in on day one to deliver immediate relief for families all across the country — and no one is knows the department better than Tom Vilsack,” the source said, noting that Vilsack has already passed Senate scrutiny once. 

In picking Vilsack, the Biden team passed over Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for the role, who has been a vocal force for protecting food stamps and other food insecurity programs during her time on the House Agriculture Committee.

Fudge was instead offered a role overseeing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Ohio lawmaker had been backed by a number of progressive groups for the agriculture role and openly campaigned for the USDA job.

“It is unclear why Rep. Fudge is instead being asked to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development seeing as her experience is in agriculture which is why she publicly lobbied for that cabinet position,” Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash said in a statement.

“While we believe Rep. Fudge can excel at any leadership position, we share the confusion of many about this move and are left to believe this choice stems from shallow racial stereotypes about the office.”

And there’s clear pressure from outside groups and food experts for the department to expand its focus on food security.

“When it comes to food and ag policy, we all need seats at a longer table—school nutrition advocates, ranchers & farmers, conservationists, food justice orgs, chefs, regional food hubs, those who grow and serve our food including the many immigrants who make up the DNA of America,” chef José Andrés wrote on twitter in response to the Vilsack news.

Some also worry Vilsack lacks the credibility to improve USDA’s record on racial inequality after his role in firing Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod, USDA’s former rural development director for Georgia, was fired by Vilsack in 2010 after out-of-context remarks of a speech she gave were published by Andrew Breitbart. The Obama administration later apologized to Sherrod and she was offered a new position at USDA, which she did not accept. 

Climate group called Vilsack’s selection a “stark contrast” with the wide backing for Fudge, who would have been the first African American female to lead USDA.

“Tom Vilsack’s appointment to secretary of agriculture is the exact opposite of what an administration focused on ‘building back better’ needs. In order to ensure a livable future, we need leadership that will fight for struggling family farmers, sustainable farming, and national food security, not corporate agriculture giants,” the group wrote in a release.

“Vilsack spent his time as Secretary of Agriculture under Obama sweet-talking Big Ag, directly harming Black farmers, and furthering the USDA’s discriminatory history, including by overseeing the firing of Shirley Sherrod. His appointment is disappointing and does not meet our criteria for Biden’s cabinet,” the group wrote.

Vilsack has also gotten some lukewarm reviews from those within agriculture, with some saying the Obama administration didn’t do enough to combat the sway major agribusiness has over smaller farmers.

“Vilsack may be a huge change from the last four years, and Obama-style politics shouldn’t be that surprising, but to have the actual same people and to have Vilsack, who didn’t follow through on his big promises and big efforts, is kinda disappointing,” the ag lobbyist said, referencing a regulatory effort to address consolidation of big ag players. 

“It’s not just that he was on the side of Big Ag, but he gave people hope and then didn’t follow through.”

Vilsack does have allies in the Senate however, and early support from Republicans could be key in clinching a nomination.

“Iowan Tom Vilsack has 8 yrs of experience leading the Dept of Agriculture. He also understands the importance of preserving the family farm & the significance of the biofuels industry,” Sen. Chuck Crassley (R-Iowa) wrote on twitter Tuesday night.

He previously told reporters, “I would like to have him be the next Secretary of Agriculture.”

Alex Gangitano contributed.

Updated 3:30 p.m.

Tags Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Tom Vilsack Tom Vilsack USDA

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