Tom Vilsack has a big job ahead of him, but leaders of Iowa groups representing agriculture welcome the former governor’s return to leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
President-elect Joe Biden made it official Thursday that he will nominate Vilsack, a two-term Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture for the eight years of the Obama administration, to head the agency once again.
Vilsack, Biden said, “is ready to get to work on day one.”
That’s good news for Iowa farmers and rural America, according to Patty Judge, a former lieutenant governor and Iowa’s last Democratic secretary of agriculture.
Like others, Judge, the co-founder of the progressive Focus on Rural America, believes a priority for Vilsack will be cleaning up the “messes” the Trump administration has created in the farm economy through trade and tariff policies.
“I believe Tom Vilsack is up to the job,” she said.
“He knows exactly how hard the job is and by agreeing to do it again he shows a high level of dedication to public service,” said Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman.
Overall, Iowa commodity group leaders said they welcome Vilsack’s return to USDA.
“We see it as a positive thing,” said Pat McGonegle, chief executive of Iowa Pork Producers. Vilsack understands production agriculture, he said, “and we appreciate he’s willing to come back to do it because he’s an experienced guy.”
McGonegle said he’s taking a bit of a wait-and-see attitude with respect to Vilsack’s initiatives, but believes he will be a “wonderful advocate” for issues important to pork producers, such as international trade.
Based on his record as governor and agriculture secretary, Vilsack takes a “holistic view of the industry — farms and farmers, and regulatory bodies,” McGonegle said. “That’s one of his assets — his holistic view.”
That’s critically important in a year when Iowa farmers have been challenged by drought, derecho and depressed markets, said Iowa Farm Bureau spokesman Andrew Wheeler.
It’s important to have an agriculture secretary who “understands the industry and the struggles family farmers face,” Wheeler said. “Iowan Tom Vilsack has remained engaged in U.S. agriculture and has a deep understanding of the current issues.”
Since leaving the USDA, Vilsack has been president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Vilsack won’t be returning to the same old, same old, said Lehman.
Agriculture has changed over the past four years due in large part of trade policies and a growing awareness of farm practices as a part of a strategy for combating climate change. And the coronavirus pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities in food production and processing, the Polk County farmer said.
“To be frank, the USDA did not respond well,” he said. “I’m sure Tom Vilsack will be tackling the vulnerabilities that have been exposed on the farmer end and in the supply chain.”
In addition to those vulnerabilities, there’s a need for leadership that recognizes the need for agriculture and food systems reform, said Iowa Organic Association Executive Director Roz Lehman, who is no relations to Aaron.
She hopes Vilsack will guide the USDA away from the “decay of a decades-old system that maintains the status quo” into one that creates a local foods system and that emboldens producers, boosts rural communities, supplies safe, quality food and enhances the greater ecosystem to ensure sustainability and success.
The organic industry has grown since Vilsack last led the USDA, she said, and now is a $55 billion industry and the largest and fastest-growing agriculture market.
By the numbers, 2020 appears to be a good year for farmers. Farm income is up 43 percent. However, Judge pointed out much of that is the result of government payments to offset the impact of President Donald Trump’s tariffs and trade policies that limited exports, especially to China, which had been a growing market for pork and other agricultural commodities.
“We always prefer to get our products sold and make a profit versus getting government checks,” said Judge, who farmed near Albia. “I hope we can go back to that.”
In addition to growing food, fuel production has become an important part of the farm income picture. So Vilsack’s nomination is good news on that front, said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
“It’ll be great to have an Iowan at the helm of USDA that understands the challenges facing the family farmers who dominate American agriculture,” Shaw said. “Vilsack knows firsthand the importance of robust biofuels markets at home and abroad to the economic vitality of the farm economy. He has stood up for the (Renewable Fuel Standard) and expanded exports.”
Vilsack has been involved in “innovative solutions” like the Biofuels Infrastructure Program that really began the growth of E15 availability, he said, with grants to enable expanded distribution of the higher blend of ethanol.
Vilsack also understands the importance of USDA’s roles in rural communities beyond the farm, Judge said. She expects him to push hard to see rural America more connected to the internet “so we have a fighting chance to develop our economy and our kids have fighting chance to get an education.”
With record-low interest rates, Vilsack might step up USDA investment in rural housing, too, she said. In many rural communities, the housing stock is old or nonexistent.
Among the challenges Vilsack faces will be overcoming opposition to his nomination from Black farmers and civil rights advocates who say Vilsack’s record on civil rights should disqualify him. USDA has a reputation of discriminating against Black and female farmers.
However, Judge believes Vilsack will succeed despite that.
“He will rise above that,” she said. “It’s not a quick fix, but Tom Vilsack can bring people to the table. He will bring them to the table.”
He’s a “competent manager who never quits working,” said Judge, who sat next to Vilsack in the Iowa Senate in the early 1990s. “As an Iowan and a farmer, I am very pleased he is going back.”