Vilsack meets Agriculture panel with clear return path to USDA

Stabenow sees easy confirmation for the former USDA secretary

Stabenow, who is in line to lead Senate Agriculture Committee, sees few problems for Tom Vilsack's nomination as Agriculture secretary.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Stabenow, who is in line to lead Senate Agriculture Committee, sees few problems for Tom Vilsack's nomination as Agriculture secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 1, 2021 at 3:28pm

Tom Vilsack will face the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday as a nominee for a job he knows well after eight years as Agriculture secretary during President Barack Obama’s two terms.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in line to become chairwoman of the committee, said she anticipates few problems for Vilsack at his nomination hearing that is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. His appearance comes after the Biden administration apparently softened resistance from some Black farm groups critical of the nominee. 

“People know him and trust him,” Stabenow told reporters in a Jan. 28 call. “He certainly has broad, deep and wide knowledge of all aspects of agriculture and probably one of our top advocates for rural communities in the country.”

Stabenow and Sen. John Boozman, the Arkansas Republican in line to become ranking member, said the committee would vote on Vilsack's nomination at some point Tuesday after the hearing ends.

She said she wants Vilsack to lay out his agenda and priorities, but she told reporters last week that the former Cabinet official is assembling a good team that includes one of her committee staff members, Mike Schmidt, as a senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary for farm production and conservation. 

If confirmed, Vilsack, 70, would give up his job as the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which paid him $833,000 in 2020 along with a $30,228 housing allowance.

The former Iowa governor has the support of major agriculture groups and the bipartisan backing of farm-state senators. He still is seen as a defender of the status quo among some advocacy groups for small farmers and organizations that say the Agriculture Department needs to be more of a watchdog than an ally of agribusiness.

But the administration seems to have gotten Vilsack some breathing room with several Black farm groups critical of Vilsack for doing what they said was too little in tackling long-standing discrimination Black farmers faced when he led the department from 2009 to 2017.

Black farmers comprised 14 percent of all farmers in 1920 but are now 1.3 percent of U.S. growers. A history of minority farmers’ land ownership by the Economic Research Service says land ownership by Black farmers peaked in 1910. Researchers and histories cite racial discrimination in government policies at federal and state levels as contributing to the loss of land and wealth.  

Vilsack stirred mistrust with his mishandling in 2010 of the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia state director for rural development. He acted based on video excerpts of a speech she made. The heavily edited version by conservative Andrew Breitbart made it sound as though Sherrod, who is Black, had turned away a farmer because he was white. The fuller video showed that Sherrod had talked about putting aside personal bias to help the man.

The White House and Vilsack apologized and Sherrod was offered a new job, which she turned down.

Mending fences

To try to mend fences, Vilsack had a virtual meeting on Dec. 22 with several representatives of Black farm groups, including Sherrod.

Johnella Holmes, president and executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association, participated in the call and came away with the sense “that they heard us. I find it was a good strong attempt not to placate, because there were no false promises made.”

She declined to discuss specifics.

“I don’t think he’s going to make those mistakes again,” Holmes said in a telephone interview.   

Since the call, Biden has nominated Virginia Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Jewel H. Bronaugh to be the No. 2 official at the USDA. If confirmed, Bronaugh, who is African American, would be the first woman of color to become deputy secretary.

The administration also announced on Jan. 27 that the Farm Service Agency was indefinitely suspending debt collections and foreclosures against approximately 12,000 borrowers with farm storage facility or direct-farm loans while offering flexibility for people in its guaranteed loan program. The agency said it would work with the Justice Department to stop foreclosures and evictions already underway.

The action was not directed specifically at farmers of color, but it will aid growers who turned to the department for financing because they can't get loans from private lenders. Farmers of color often identify difficulty in getting loans as a major obstacle to keeping their operations afloat or expanding them.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, one of the organizations on the Dec. 22 call with Vilsack, saw the pause on foreclosures as a significant step and in line with its mission to help its membership of Black farmers, land owners and cooperatives develop economic self-sufficiency and to work with Black farmers to retain their land.

“This is a huge step towards justice for black farmers and a signal that ALL family farmers are crucial to our food system. No #farmer struggling to feed us should be struggling with debt,” the organization said in a Jan. 27 tweet.

The department also halted $2.3 billion in the last round of COVID-19 payments approved by Vilsack’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue. The department said the payments are under review as part of the administration-wide evaluation of regulations and decisions made in the last weeks of the Trump administration.      

The Biden administration has made economic recovery from the pandemic a top priority. As Agriculture secretary, Vilsack would have to address an uneven recovery in agriculture. Farmers who relied on sales to restaurants say they are still hurting because of closures or limited hours and service resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers have shifted spending from dining out to making grocery purchases or getting food box deliveries.

In calendar 2020, the department's aid for disruptions in the agriculture and food supply chain along with forgivable loans from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program gave farmers a boost and accounted for nearly 40 percent of net farm income.

Now parts of the farm economy appear to be on the rebound with prices per bushel for corn, soybeans and wheat trending up in 2021, a contrast from the past several years. Higher prices for corn and soybeans are fueled by increased demand from China as it rebuilds the world’s largest hog population devastated by African swine fever.

Buying those crops also helps China move toward meeting agricultural purchase obligations under the phase one mini-deal that the Trump administration negotiated. Beijing fell short in meeting 2020 obligations that call for it to purchase $200 billion in additional U.S. agriculture, energy, manufactured goods and services through 2021. However, China came closest to meeting its targets in agriculture and energy.