The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary Tuesday, returning the former Iowa governor to the role he held for eight years under former President Barack Obama.
Vilsack, who served in the Obama administration from 2009-2017, was confirmed in a 92-7 vote.
Vilsack’s “deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, before the Senate voted. “Our farmers, our families, our rural communities have so many challenges right now.”
The “COVID-19 crisis is continuing to disrupt our food supply chain for farmers, food processors and essential workers,” said Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat. “And tens of millions of families still don’t have enough to eat,” she said. “And the climate crisis is posing an extremely grave threat to the viability of our economy and food supply.”
Among senators voting no on Vilsack’s confirmation: Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who has objected to Vilsack’s corporate ties; and Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Vilsack told Senate agriculture committee members at his confirmation hearing Feb. 2 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.
Vilsack 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 also said the nation can reach ambitious goals: Farmers can lead in the fight against climate change; the Department of Agriculture 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 farmers 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 one or two plants temporarily shuttering doesn’t bring down the entire livestock market.
Ethanol vs. electric vehicles
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and 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. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol, which absorbs half of the state’s annual corn crop.
Vilsack said the nation will need ethanol and biodiesel “in the foreseeable future” as the U.S. moves to electric vehicles. He 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 his days as mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, his first political role, more than three decades ago. Though raised in Pittsburgh — not on a farm, as were many others who’ve 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.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at [email protected]