Vilsack headed the USDA under President Obama
By Diego Flammini
President-elect Biden is turning to a familiar face to serve as the head of the United States Department of Agriculture for the second time.
Biden has nominated Tom Vilsack for a return as U.S. agriculture secretary..
Vilsack served as the Secretary of Agriculture in President Obama’s administration from 2008 to 2016. Since then, the former governor of Iowa has been the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Picking Vilsack for the USDA post is a way for Biden to acknowledge modern farmers with the challenges of tomorrow, said Ryan Bernstein, a senior policy advisor with McGuireWoods, an organization representing food and agribusiness interests.
“It’s a recognition of traditional agriculture at USDA with a nod to the more progressive items the USDA can be looking at expanding in the future like rural housing, climate change and expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Bernstein told Farms.com.
Bernstein is a former chief of staff for North Dakota Senator John Hoeven and worked with members of the Senate on recent farm bills.
If Biden makes the announcement, Vilsack will need to be confirmed by the Senate before officially taking the reins at the USDA.
It’s unlikely the Senate will disapprove of the pick, Bernstein said.
“Nominees don’t always get through, but I think with Vilsack it’s a formality at this point,” he said. “Some of President-elect Biden’s picks will have a tougher road, but Vilsack is well respected in the Senate, so I think this pick is safe and pretty non-controversial.”
Some of the challenges Vilsack will face upon a return to the USDA aren’t necessarily related to production agriculture.
While farmers and the ag economy will likely need help coming out of the pandemic, social and political issues will be on his agenda as well, Bernstein said.
“Getting the ag economy back up on its feet is obviously a big challenge, but he’ll also have to navigate other things that usually isn’t in the USDA’s wheelhouse,” Bernstein said. “This includes things like climate change and racial equality.”
Ag industry groups responded to the news of Vilsack’s pending nomination.
His time as a former ag secretary and governor of a state that relies heavily on the industry make him a good fit, said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand,” Duvall said in a Dec. 9 statement. “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.”
The cattle industry also supports the Vilsack nomination.
“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,” Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a Dec. 9 release. “We look forward to working with him for the betterment of beef farmers and ranchers."
The news of Vilsack returning to the USDA, however, was not met with unanimous positivity.
“Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period,” Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, told Politico.
Stovall’s organization consists of Black farmers from Southern states working to increase awareness on challenges farmers of color face.
“When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, (Vilsack) is not for that,” he said, Politico reported. “It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limit-resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.”
Prior to information about Vilsack receiving the USDA nomination, former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Marcia Fudge from Ohio were seen as possible nominees.