Tom Vilsack’s Encore Performance at USDA Can Be Good for American Farmers

standing person wearing brown leather shoes at daytime

Call it an encore performance: Tom Vilsack will return to the United States Department of Agriculture.

gray stone columns worm's-eye view photoPresident-elect Joe Biden announced last week that Vilsack is his choice to run the agency and its budget of more than $150 billion. If the US Senate votes to confirm—and it almost certainly will—Vilsack will reprise the role he held for two full terms in the last Democratic administration, when he was the longest-serving cabinet secretary under President Obama.

Vilsack is a good choice for American farmers: If past performance predicts future performance, we can expect an agriculture secretary who knows the position and understands the challenges of food production. (Shortly after Biden’s election last month, in fact, I suggested Vilsack for the job.)

Born an orphan in 1950 at Pittsburgh and adopted in 1951, Vilsack has led a great American life. He went to Hamilton College in New York, where he met his wife. After he earned a law degree, they moved to her hometown in Iowa, where they supported Biden during his first presidential campaign, way back in the 1980s. In time Vilsack moved from the practice of law to the practice of politics. For eight years, he was governor of his adopted state. He turned 70 last Sunday and has dedicated much of his life to public service.

I’ve met him twice. During both encounters, he struck me as sincere and approachable, with a common touch. He’s a good listener.

Farmers will have Vilsack’s ear—and we also should expect him to use his voice, speaking out for food producers during these troubled times.

He can start by promoting international trade. He already knows that American farmers depend on two-way trade and that we’d prefer to earn our income from markets.

Just last week, Vilsack applauded the Trump administration’s decision to file a formal complaint against Canada for blocking the importation of made-in-America dairy products and thereby violating the terms of USMCA, the new trade agreement that links the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

“We knew from day one that enforcement would be key to bringing the intended benefits home to America’s dairy industry,” said Vilsack in a statement issued on December 9 by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which he currently heads.

Vilsack can become an important voice for trade. In addition to pushing for USMCA compliance, let’s hope he also calls for a revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration but abandoned by President Trump, to the detriment of farm exports and U.S. national security.

At least President Trump was excellent on regulations, which were a major frustration among farmers during the Obama years. Burdensome rules from bureaucrats made it harder for us to grow the food that our country needs. The worst of these was the Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called “Waters of the US” proposal, which threatened property rights and the ability of farmers to make decisions about how to grow crops.

The Trump administration wisely nixed this bad idea. The Biden administration would be smart not to bring it back—and perhaps Vilsack will make sure that it doesn’t try.

Farmers like me don’t oppose regulations: We just want them based on the kind of sound science that recognizes the safety and utility of mainstream agricultural practices, such as genetic modification, crop protection, and promising new technologies, such as CRISPR.

brown grass field towards treesOn climate change—sure to be a major concern of the Biden administration—farmers expect to be treated not as part of the problem but as part of the solution. Again, this is an area where Vilsack can use his skill and experience to make a positive difference, especially in the areas of soil conservation and carbon sequestration.

In addition, we should look for his leadership as Congress writes a new farm bill, as seems likely in the next four years or so.

There are critics who have condemned the selection of Vilsack. They seem to want to transform the Department of Agriculture and its focus into a food security agency. While anti-hunger programs always will be a part of USDA’s portfolio, we must remember that America’s most important on-the-ground hunger fighters are the farmers who grow the food that we all need.

Our once and future agriculture secretary knows this—and it will be good to have a friend on the team of President Biden.

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Daniel Kelley

Daniel Kelley

Daniel grows corn and soybeans in partnership with his brothers and son. Long history with agriculture cooperative systems, providing leadership to GROWMARK and CoBank.

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