Vilsack poised to return as USDA secretary

President-elect Joe Biden is on track to nominate Tom Vilsack to serve as secretary of agriculture—a job he had for eight years under President Barack Obama.

Vilsack, a longtime friend of Biden, was secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2017. Biden served as Obama’s vice president. Vilsack, a former Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007, is currently the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. His nomination would be considered by the U.S. Senate in January. Biden will take office on Jan. 20, 2021.

Vilsack’s nomination has been well received by farm and commodity organizations, who noted his advocacy for meat producers and as a voice of reason for renewable energy and climate change and the capability to work in a bipartisan manner.

Farm groups

Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said Vilsack’s past leadership during the Obama administration and his knowledge as a governor from a state where agriculture is essential to its economy makes him well-qualified.

“Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand. 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."

Duvall said he has a good relationship with Vilsack and he looked forward to sitting down to continue the conversation on how to address opportunities and challenges facing agriculture and rural communities. Duvall said the pandemic revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the food system and Vilsack had a front seat as head of the dairy export council.

“Together, we must prepare to tackle a new farm bill and build on efforts to create a fair marketplace for U.S. agriculture to compete globally,” Duvall said.

"It is essential we ensure climate policies respect farmers and remain market-based and voluntary. And, we must end the digital divide that puts rural America at a disadvantage.”

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew released the following statement in response to the news:

“Between pandemic recovery, the imminent threat of climate change, rampant corporate power, and chronic overproduction, family farmers and ranchers have significant challenges ahead of them in the next several years—and they need a strong secretary of agriculture behind them to make it through in one piece,” Larew said.

Vilsack demonstrated when he was in the Obama administration he has necessary qualifications and experience to steer the agency through these turbulent times. Larew said the nominee must use his skills to implement and enforce rules that protect farmers from anticompetitive practices, enact meaningful structural reforms that balance supply with demand, restore competition to agricultural markets, strengthen local and regional food systems, advance racial equity in agriculture, and mitigate the threat of climate change.

“However, the secretary’s obligation is not just to serve farmers; it’s also to serve the American public at large,” Larew said. “Many of the aforementioned reforms will benefit everyone by building a food system that is fairer, more sustainable, and more resilient to disruptions. In addition to those changes, we would urge Vilsack to expand nutrition assistance programs in order to ensure that millions of individuals who are facing unemployment and food insecurity are able to meet their most basic needs through the pandemic.”

Betsy Huber, president of the National Grange, said Vilsack was a wise choice to lead the department at a time when farming is even more essential and food security is a serious issue for more Americans than ever.

"Secretary Vilsack’s experience as a small-town mayor, a two-term governor, a former secretary of agriculture and as a CEO in private industry gives him a unique perspective to grapple with the upcoming challenges at USDA. His ability to rise above partisanship will serve USDA well as it prioritizes efforts to connect unserved rural residents with high-speed broadband for distance learning, telehealth, remote business, essential services and smart agriculture.

"The National Grange looks forward to working with Secretary Vilsack on rural broadband, food and fiber production, the farm economy, trade, food for those in need, environment and climate change, and other rural issues," Huber said.

Commodity organizations

National Wheat Growers Association President Dave Milligan and Cass City, Michigan, wheat farmer Dave Milligan made the following statement in response as he noted a familiar face will be helpful for farmers.

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“Former Secretary Vilsack’s understanding of policies important to wheat will be critical as the Department continues work to address the many economic challenges facing farmers across the country. Previously, his willingness to meet and listen to stakeholders as the USDA develops programs and regulations was key. Former Secretary Vilsack’s wealth of experience and his knowledge of agriculture are important attributes for this role.”

National Corn Growers Association President John Linder said Vilsack demonstrated during his eight years leading the department during the Obama administration that he had a willingness to listen to the input from growers across the country and his steadfast commitment to agriculture, renewable fuels, our environment and USDA’s food and nutrition programs.

“He’s been an outspoken advocate for rural America and we look forward to working together again, along with President-elect Biden, to build long-term demand for our product, mitigate the impact of climate change, seek new markets around the globe, and continue to feed and fuel the world,” Linder said.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association CEO Colin Woodall offered his support on behalf of his organization for Vilsack’s pending nomination.

"He has the unique set to be able to hit the ground running on day one and cattle producers are thankful for this to an already storied career in agriculture. He has the unique skill set to be able to hit the ground running on day one and cattle producers are thankful for this continuity," Woodall said. “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. We look forward to working with him for the betterment of beef farmers and ranchers."

National Pork Producers Council President Howard “AV” Roth, a hog farmer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, offered his congratulations to Vilsack.

“As both the former governor of Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the country, and the former USDA secretary, he understands how critical a vibrant American farm sector is to the rural and overall U.S. economy, and the importance of keeping consumers supplied with an affordable source of nutritious protein,” Roth said. “We look forward to working with him on issues of importance to U.S. pork producers, including expanding exports, strengthening biosecurity at our borders to ensure African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases remain outside the country, and ensuring USDA oversight of gene-edited livestock.”

Fellow Iowan and U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, a Third District Democrat, like Biden’s choice. “As our family farmers and agricultural communities face the challenges of recovering from trade uncertainty and the undermining of the Renewable Fuel Standard, there is no person better suited to lead the Department tasked with responding to their concerns than Tom.”

Other organizations

Farm Credit Council President and CEO Todd Van Hoose said Vilsack’s nomination was welcome news.

“His comprehensive knowledge of agriculture and passion for rural America was evident during the Obama administration, and we look forward to working with him again in the Biden Administration," Van Hoose said. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and added to the many challenges America’s farmers and ranchers face. There’s also a farm bill on the horizon. American farm families and rural communities will have a strong advocate with Secretary Vilsack leading USDA."

“United Fresh is pleased to see Secretary Vilsack return to USDA,” said United Fresh Produce Association CEO Tom Stenzel. “Under his steady leadership we worked together to further the gains of the industry and broaden access to fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly for children. There is no shortage of issues to work on over the next four year—from trade to climate change. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that we have experienced leaders who can hit the ground running to ensure that there is a seamless transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, including making sure that the supply chain is utilized to address the immense and immediate food insecurity needs being faced around the country—and there is no one more familiar with how to make USDA work for the American people than Tom Vilsack.”

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].