President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to return to the post he held for eight years under the Obama administration.
The Washington Post, Associated Press and other major news organizations reported Tuesday evening that Biden is expected to announce Vilsack again as Agriculture secretary.
Vilsack, who turns 70 next week, was former President Barack Obama’s longest-serving cabinet member, leading USDA from 2009 to 2017. He was a two-term governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007.
The selection for the Agriculture secretary position has become one of the more high-profile battles for Biden’s cabinet. North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp was being considered but drew criticism from progressives and more than 100 groups. Others in the Democratic party pushed for Representative Marcia Fudge so she could turn the focus of USDA more towards food programs and climate change.
Since leaving USDA, Vilsack has been president and CEO of the Dairy Export Council, though he also served as an early adviser to the Biden campaign on rural and agricultural issues.
As secretary, Vilsack worked extensively on agricultural trade issues and was an advocate for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. USDA under Vilsack ended up implementing two farm bills. He also pushed the federal government to invest in bio-based products, including work to switch military fuels to renewable fuels. His tenure as ag secretary was also during a period of record farm income and record export numbers.
When Vilsack left USDA in January 2017, he wrote an “exit memo” for incoming Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The memo touched on everything from rural development to global food security to rural substance abuse. The memo also highlighted actions were needed to ensure affordable credit for farmers. Vilsack also advocated for Congress to lift restrictions on the Agriculture secretary’s use of the Commodity Credit Corp., (CCC) which Congress did shortly after Perdue was confirmed. Perdue then used the CCC to create both the Market Facilitation Program (MFP) and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), both of which provided tens of billions of dollars in direct aid to farmers.
Vilsack’s tenure marked long battles over issues such as country-of-origin labeling that led to him eventually conceding COOL needed to end. He tried to change the beef checkoff only to be blocked by Congress.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who still has not publicly acknowledged Biden as president-elect, still told reporters he liked the idea of Biden picking Vilsack to return to the job. “I like what Vilsack did as secretary of Agriculture for eight years, and if he was in for another four years, it would be OK with me,” Grassley said to reporters Tuesday.
National Farmers Union released a statement Tuesday evening highlighting some of the challenges in rural America — pandemic recovery, climate change, corporate power, overproduction — that demand a strong USDA secretary. Vilsack has the qualifications and experience addressing those challenges, said Rob Larew, NFU’s president. But more is needed right now as well to address both the food system and need to tackle food insecurity, Larew added.
“However, the Secretary’s obligation is not just to serve farmers; it’s also to serve the American public at large. Many of the aforementioned reforms will benefit everyone by building a food system that is fairer, more sustainable, and more resilient to disruptions. In addition to those changes, we would urge Vilsack to expand nutrition assistance programs in order to ensure that millions of individuals who are facing unemployment and food insecurity are able to meet their most basic needs through the pandemic.”