U.S. Senate confirms former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for return engagement as agriculture secretary
Tom Vilsack easily won Senate confirmation Tuesday as President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary, but the former Iowa governor faces difficult challenges ahead, navigating divisions over climate, race and addressing hunger.
Fortunately for Vilsack, he won’t have much of a learning curve when it comes to running the Agriculture Department. He’s already the second-longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, having served from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama.
Senators, including Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, voted 92-7 to confirm him.
Vilsack’s “deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said Tuesday before the confirmation vote.
“Our farmers, our families, our rural communities have so many challenges right now,” said the Michigan Democrat, pointing to COVID-19 disruptions to food supplies, increasing hunger and climate change’s “grave threat” to the long-term viability of the U.S. economy and agriculture.
Senators opposing Vilsack included one who usually sides with Democrats: Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who has objected to Vilsack’s ties to big business.
Sanders told reporters at the Capitol he likes Vilsack and thought he probably would be “fine” on the issues, if not as strong as he’d like. “I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous, in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture,” Sanders said.
Food & Water Watch, a group that opposes so-called “Big Ag,” took a harder line.
“In his previous stint at USDA, Vilsack backed mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers. Similarly, he readily advanced industry-driven initiatives allowing companies to inspect their own poultry processing plants, dismantling federal oversight of food and worker safety,” said Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director. “This administration needs to drastically shift course.”
Joining Sanders in voting no on Vilsack were Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky. None of them issued statements about their votes. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, did not vote.
Jeff Jorgenson, president of the Iowa Soybean Association board, said Tuesday that Vilsack’s confirmation “bodes well” for Iowa farmers. “The former Iowa governor’s return to USDA gives Iowa farmers and rural communities a strong tie to the nation’s capital and voice in the future of farm policy,” the Sidney, Iowa, farmer said in a statement.
Vilsack thanked the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and the Senate for the unprecedented second opportunity to lead the Agriculture Department, saying, “we’re going to be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans.”
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate-smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America,” he said.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said Tuesday that Vilsack must expand Black farmers’ access to land, loans and credit “to level the playing field and right” historic wrongs.
Boyd also called on Vilsack to reform the department’s farm subsidy program “to end systemic discrimination” and also to resolve the backlog of civil rights complaints against the agency.
Jeff Lyon, general manager of FarmFirst, a dairy cooperative that represents farmers throughout the Midwest, including Iowa, said Vilsack faces “no shortage of challenges” — from environmental concerns to food labeling.
The most important, Lyon said in a statement, is providing “much-needed support for farm communities that are exhausted from battling the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on markets.”
Ernst said Vilsack is well qualified for the job, but raised concerns — as she did in his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing — about the Biden administration’s position on ethanol and biodiesel, given the president’s plan to shift the nation to electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol.
Vilsack “must be a strong and loud advocate for Iowa farmers, the biofuel community and rural America as a whole when helping create and implement the new administration’s agenda,” Ernst said.
Vilsack has said the nation will need ethanol and biodiesel “in the foreseeable future” as the U.S. moves to electric vehicles.
“If Secretary Vilsack decides to give in to the liberal left — their policies that would hurt animal agriculture and devastate our biofuel industry ... Iowans will remember,” Ernst warned.
In his confirmation hearing, Vilsack told Senate Agriculture Committee members that he would return to lead the 70,000-employee, $146-billion-a-year agency with the understanding “it’s a fundamentally different time.”
“I am a different person. And it is a different department,” Vilsack said.
He said the nation faces immediate challenges from the coronavirus public health crisis, including getting food to hungry Americans, protecting frontline meatpacking and farm workers, and rebuilding the U.S. economy from its pandemic-induced recession.
But the 70-year-old Waukee resident also said the nation can reach ambitious goals: Farmers can lead in the fight against climate change; the agriculture department can address systemic racial inequities within farm programs; the U.S. can solve chronic hunger for millions of families; and it can address the problem of concentrated control of resources in the farm industry.
Here are some of the issues that Vilsack will face:
Vilsack said the U.S. can build markets and provide incentives that pay farmers to improve soil health, sequester carbon, capture and reuse methane, and create manufacturing that turns agricultural “waste material into new chemicals and materials and fabrics and fibers.” One idea calls for famers to receive and sell credits for the carbon they keep out of the atmosphere.
The issue gained prominence early in the pandemic when giant meatpacking plants temporarily shuttered as thousands of workers became sick with COVID-19. Farmers destroyed pigs, chickens and other livestock that backed up on farms and couldn’t be slaughtered. At the same time, consumers faced skyrocketing prices and supply shortages.
Vilsack said the agency can help provide incentives for building more regional meatpacking facilities so that the temporary shuttering of one or two plants doesn’t bring down the entire livestock market.
Ethanol vs. electric vehicles
Ernst, an Agriculture Committee member, asked Vilsack in his confirmation hearing if he would support ethanol and biodiesel production as Biden seeks to shift the nation to electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden signed an executive order Jan. 27 directing federal officials to devise a plan to convert all federal, state, local and tribal vehicle fleets, including the massive one operated by the U.S. Postal Service, to “clean and zero-emission vehicles.”
“Will you direct USDA to buy Tesla trucks that run on electricity or will you be supporting our farmers and purchasing Ford F-150s that run on E85?” Ernst asked. Ethanol absorbs half of Iowa’s annual corn crop and buttresses its price.
Vilsack said renewable fuels play an important role in tackling climate change, pointing to a study released in December that showed greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than for gasoline. He said renewable fuels can be especially helpful in reducing emissions on high-traffic roads near low-income neighborhoods.
Americans have flooded food banks and pantries, seeking assistance as jobs and hours have been cut during the coronavirus outbreak.
Asked how the agriculture department can improve the food supply chain in a way that helps local fruit, vegetable and livestock producers, Vilsack said the agency can expand market support for local growers selling to schools, universities, prisons and other government institutions.
He also said the department can support food hubs that help local growers process, market and distribute their products, expand “commitments to farmers markets” and help farmers who are interested in growing organic food.
He said the nation can help build a food system “that makes healthy and nutritious food more available, more convenient and more affordable to all Americans.” The move would help millions of Americans “cope with obesity and diabetes and other chronic diseases,” he said.
Vilsack said he would look at putting together an “equity commission or task force” that would review the agency’s programs for expanding minority farmers’ access to credit.
“We need to take a much deeper dive into USDA programs” to determine if they contain systemic racism or barriers — “intentional or unintentional” — that make it difficult for people to access programs, he said.
Vilsack served as Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007 and has known Biden since Vilsack’s days as mayor of Mount Pleasant, his first political role, more than three decades ago. Though Vilsack was raised in Pittsburgh — not on a farm, as were many others who have served as agriculture secretary — he nevertheless would re-enter the office having served longer in the role than anyone but fellow Iowan James “Tama Jim” Wilson.
Vilsack has a long way to go if he’s to claim the top spot. The Scottish-born Wilson, who farmed near Traer and was a professor of agriculture at what is now Iowa State University, served three days shy of 16 years, from 1897 to 1913.
Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY’s congressional reporter, contributed to this story.