Vilsack on course for encore as Agriculture secretary

Vilsack is a former Iowa governor who headed USDA in the Obama administration

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of Iowa is President-elect Biden's reported choice for the Cabinet post. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of Iowa is President-elect Biden's reported choice for the Cabinet post. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 8, 2020 at 9:25pm

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate Tom Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary for both terms of the Obama administration, to once again lead the department.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who has argued that the Democratic Party needs to do more outreach to rural and agriculture communities, is currently president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council where he has pushed for greater access to foreign markets for U.S. dairy products. He has been at the export council since Feb. 1, 2017.

Several publications reported Biden's likely choice. 

During the campaign, Vilsack said the Biden-Harris ticket would not ignore rural America.

“A Biden-Harris administration will build back better the American economy by strengthening and expanding access to credit and equity financing to small businesses and entrepreneurs located in rural communities across America,” Vilsack said.

His nomination is likely to be welcomed by key farm-state lawmakers. But Vilsack may receive opposition from lawmakers and organizations that say he will continue status quo policies at the USDA that they say favors big farms and agribusiness over smaller farm operations and more inclusive policies.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior Republican Senate Agriculture Committee member, said Tuesday that he had a good working relationship with Vilsack. They last saw each other in August at an event in Iowa  on the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.  

Like Grassley, Vilsack is a strong supporter of corn-based ethanol, trade and biotechnology in agriculture. But Vilsack during his tenure tried to prod the agriculture industry to be proactive on climate change at a time when the idea was unpopular among farmers.     

“I like what Vilsack did as secretary of Agriculture secretary for eight years and if he was in for another four year, it’d be okay with me,” Grassley of Iowa said. “I’d be glad to, if he wants me to, speak for him before the Agriculture committee.” 

But Vilsack draws criticism from organizations like Food and Water Watch, a coalition of animal welfare, environmental, farm and food safety groups that backed House Agriculture Committee member Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, for the Agriculture secretary job. Biden reportedly will nominate her to be Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Mitch Jones, policy director for the Food and Water Watch, said in a statement Monday that Vilsack “has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants — some of whom he has gone to work for — while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn.”

“America needs an Agriculture secretary that will finally prioritize sustainable family farming and national food security over corporate profits. Tom Vilsack has proven he will not be the Agriculture leader we need,” Jones said.

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National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said in a statement that Vilsack has the potential to make big changes at the USDA.

"He must use his impressive set of 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," Larew said.

If nominated and confirmed, Vilsack, who turns 70 next week, would succeed Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor who has won praise from major farm groups such as the American Farm Bureau for his pro-industry stance. Perdue was President Donald Trump’s lead on outreach to agriculture, a key constituency. Perdue fashioned an ad hoc trade aid program to help offset the effects of retaliatory duties on agricultural products imposed by China and other trading partners in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum and Chinese imports.    

Congressional Democrats have been highly critical of Perdue for proposed regulations that would revamp eligibility requirements, calculations of monthly benefits and work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Several million people could lose benefits and eligibility.