SF Special: A Look Back at Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s Tenure
1.17.2017 Update: Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announces that he will become president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, the nonprofit council established to promote global dairy demand. See story.
Tom Vilsack never thought he would be in this place. Right here, right now.
“If my mom and dad were alive today, and they knew that I was the Secretary of Agriculture, they would think the country was in deep trouble,” Vilsack joked in an interview with Successful Farming. “There was nothing in my early life that would suggest I would have this particular job.”
Adopted into a troubled family in Pennsylvania, he could never have imagined a life of public service that has elevated him to national recognition and global influence.
Today, Vilsack can look back on his eight years as the secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture – one of the “top three jobs in the world,” he says – and still reflect the humility and grace of a lifetime doing what he thrives at: serving people.
As one of the longest-serving secretaries of agriculture in American history, Vilsack has been a calming, consistent force for farmers and rural Americans. In spite of a roller-coaster ag economy over that time, and unprecedented political rancor in Congress and Washington, he has been the voice that farmers look to for guidance, calm, and consistency.
Connection to the Farm
Vilsack found his home in agriculture.
He didn’t come from a farm. As a Democrat in a mostly conservative industry, he has built loyalty and allies across agriculture. It is a measure of his conviction, a true passion for helping people that was formed by his troubled early upbringing, and his public service in elected offices.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1950, Vilsack’s upbringing was all uphill. He was born into an orphanage and was adopted in 1951. He attended high school there, went to Hamilton College in New York, and graduated with a law degree from Albany Law School in 1975. After marrying Christie Bell in 1973, they moved to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. He joined his father-in-law’s law firm. It was a move that would change his life.
His career in service started by connecting with farmers.
It was there, in the throes of the 1980s farm crisis, that Vilsack helped struggling farmers cope with financial challenges, bankruptcy, even lost farms and families. Each year, from January through March, he helped farmers with their tax returns. It made an indelible mark on him.
“I learned from that experience how difficult farming is from a financial perspective,” he says. “That you have a tremendous amount at risk. And the reward can be good in some years, and some years there’s no reward at all.”
It also was an early lesson in the trust that farmers placed in his calm, consistent approach borne out of respect.
“I understood that this was not just a way of life, or a way they supported their families. This was how they defined themselves. How incredibly rooted they were to the land. And I got to appreciate how caring, how compassionate, how sensitive these people were.
“So I dedicated my life from that point on … to help create opportunity.”
In the video below, Vilsack outlines how farmers can be successful today.
Life of Public Service
His career in service started in Mount Pleasant, where he became mayor, rose to the Iowa Legislature, and then became a two-term governor. His agenda often taught him more about agriculture, addressing issues such as wind energy and ethanol.
Service is a part of his fiber. It’s been a career, a mission. All of it is intertwined with a feeling of optimism.
“It’s about giving back,” he says. “And frankly, the more you give, the more you get. When I think about the opportunities I’ve had of service, and the extraordinary people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, the incredible work that’s been done … the innovation I’ve seen develop.
“It’s just an exciting life. It’s an exciting time. And honestly, when you are engaged in service, I think you have a more positive attitude about things than perhaps might be the general feeling. We hear so much negativity today. I don’t have that feeling about this country. I look around and I see nothing but incredible stuff going on. And it’s because I have this opportunity of service.”
In his eight years as head of the USDA, Vilsack has covered a wide array of issues, as well. From the forestry industry to food stamps and the SNAP program, his office has touched millions of Americans – both urban and rural.
He has been a large voice for rural America, sponsoring programs from mental health to rural investment and infrastructure. He often shares the statistics that, although rural America comprises 15% of the population, it also supplies 35% to 40% of America’s military members.
He is proud of his rural roots, and the work ethic that goes with it. In rural America, he says, “If there’s a problem, we don’t belly-ache about it. We try to figure out how to solve it.”
Vilsack has also been a staunch supporter of ethanol and the Renewable Fuels Standard, to the point that some opponents have called him out as being in the pockets of large agricultural companies.
He has been called “Mr. Monsanto” by critics. When Vilsack was in the discussion as a potential nominee for vice president, the Friends of the Earth Action stated, “Americans need staunch champions for a healthy food system, not a vice president who will allow Big Agriculture to wreak havoc on our environmental health.”
Praise for Vilsack
Within agriculture, Vilsack gets mostly praise for his eight-year tenure.
“I’m a big fan of Secretary Vilsack and believe his biggest accomplishment is being one of the most effective advocates for American agriculture that has served,” according to Stephen Censky, CEO for the American Soybean Association. “Whether it has been advocating for policies that assist farmers and ranchers within the administration, or whether it has been explaining the importance of agriculture and rural communities to urban audiences and the media, he has been tireless, articulate, passionate, and successful. So not only is he one of our longest-serving secretaries of agriculture, but also he has been one of our most effective.”
Krysta Harden, who today serves as the vice president of public policy and chief sustainability officer for DuPont, also worked alongside Vilsack as the deputy secretary of the USDA, said, “While supporting traditional farmers and ranchers, Secretary Vilsack had the foresight to expand USDA’s outreach to individuals such as new farming and ranching entrepreneurs, veterans, African-Americans, and women.
“Under his leadership, we began changing the face of agriculture by empowering all farmers, especially women, young people, immigrants, minorities, socially disadvantaged producers, returning veterans, and retirees,” Harden continued. “He had the vision to support the creation of USDA’s Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network, which was designed specifically to develop more female leaders and to provide a forum for women in agriculture to support one another.”
His two terms saw significant steps in biotechnology advances across agriculture. During the most prosperous years in agriculture, the biotech issues have been a constant thread at the USDA, in the U.S., and globally.
Every agriculture secretary gets labeled based upon the success or failure of their latest farm bill, and Vilsack oversaw the passage of the 2014 bill. His legacy may depend on the next farm bill, due in 2018, even though his job will definitely change.
“Secretary Vilsack and his team have done a good job implementing the 2014 Farm Bill and should be proud of what they have accomplished,” said Rep. Mike Conaway [R-TX] and the House Agriculture Committee chairman. “During his nearly eight years at the department, Secretary Vilsack focused on helping American farmers and ranchers, despite pressure from anti-agriculture groups that supported policies that would increase the cost of food production, increase the price of food for the consumer, and add bureaucratic hurdles for every step of the food chain."
Despite the triumphs and controversies, Vilsack loves the work. Loves to serve.
People mention other Cabinet jobs as being more glamorous, more adventurous, he says, but “at the end of the day, we impact and affect every American in one way or another. It is an amazing department.”
With the pending change in the administration, Vilsack has been coy about his next step – likely waiting to see the outcome of the election. Washington has speculated he could be part of the next administration (should Hillary Clinton win) in another department or Cabinet position. Or, he may just become a full-time grandfather.
Watch the video below to see some of Vilsack's key initiatives, including creating opportunities for new farmers.
What will his legacy be?
“Secretary Vilsack leaves behind large shoes to fill,” said Sen. Pat Roberts [R-KS] and the Senate Ag Committee chairman. “Across the country – and that most certainly includes Washington – the number of folks with a solid understanding of agriculture issues is shrinking. Our next secretary of agriculture must have a solid understanding of agriculture issues. But above all, that person must be willing to go to bat for America’s agriculture producers – that means farmers, ranchers, and growers of all sizes.”
“I have heard others say that Secretary Vilsack ‘put USDA on the map,’ ” says DuPont's Harden. “From day one, he worked to raise the awareness and understanding of the work of USDA . . . It is an agency that literally touches every American and many others around the world. Tom Vilsack knows that and has made certain the rest of us know it, too,” she said.
Vilsack takes a more humble approach in an interview with Successful Farming: “I am proud of the fact that I have had the ability to serve that long.”
Surely his parents would be proud of this servant to agriculture.
Here's what Vilsack is proud of:
The Vilsack Family:
Wife: Christie. They celebrated 43 years of marriage this summer.
Children: Doug (married to Janet), Jess (married to Kate). He has four grandchildren.
Longest-Serving U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture
- James Wilson: 16 years (March 6, 1897 to March 5, 1913)
- Ezra Taft Benson: 8 years (Jan. 21, 1953 to Jan. 20, 1961)
- Orville Freeman: 8 years (Jan. 21, 1961 to Jan. 20, 1969)
- Henry A. Wallace: 7 years, 6 months (March 4, 1933 to Sept. 4, 1940)
- Tom Vilsack: 7+ years (Jan. 21, 2009 to present)
- David Houston: 6 years, 11 months (March 6, 1913 to Feb. 2, 1920)