Vilsack Expected to Return as USDA Chief

President-elect Joe Biden tapped former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack last week for a second stint as the U.S. Agriculture secretary, asking him to lead the $150 billion agency that’s key to setting policy for farmers.

Vilsack served eight years as ag secretary under President Barack Obama. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Vilsack would be the second-longest serving agriculture secretary after James Wilson, another Iowan who served in that role from 1897-1913.

Biden said Vilsack “is ready to get to work on day one. With an estimated one-in-six Americans and a quarter of U.S. children facing a hunger crisis, farmers reeling, and rural communities struggling to weather the pain and economic fallout of the pandemic, Vilsack will bring the experience and bold thinking needed to deliver immediate relief to farmers, ranchers, producers and families all across the country.”

Iowa farm leaders expressed support for the idea of Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, leading the department again. But some warn he will face challenges unlike those he saw during his eight years in the job during the Obama administration.

If confirmed, the Democrat will come to office at a time when U.S. farmers face low commodity prices, diminished trade, and an ongoing decline in rural population, jobs and opportunities.

Vilsack also would be in charge of feeding a growing number of people who are struggling with hunger, given job losses tied to the coronavirus. The USDA oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps.

The department also would be expected to play a leading role in combating climate change—a Biden priority—by helping farmers cut carbon emissions.

American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said in a written statement that he looks forward to working with Vilsack on the “strengths and weaknesses of our food system” revealed during the pandemic.

“Together, we must prepare to tackle a new farm bill and build on efforts to create a fair marketplace for U.S. agriculture to compete globally. It is essential we ensure climate policies respect farmers and remain market-based and voluntary. And, we must end the digital divide that puts rural America at a disadvantage,” Duvall said. “Tom Vilsack earned a reputation for rising above partisanship to serve farmers and ranchers and I’m confident he’ll continue to do so.”

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former deputy secretary for the USDA, said Vilsack offers predictability amid the “intense uncertainty right now” in agriculture.

Sources: Des Moines Register, AgWeb