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Vilsack brings to-do list as he starts new stint as agriculture secretary

As agriculture secretary, Vilsack will be the Biden administration’s link to rural America.

Boosted by a landslide confirmation vote in the Senate, Tom Vilsack will begin his second stint as agriculture secretary on Wednesday facing problems from the pandemic and climate change to rising hunger rates in America. His own list of goals is much longer and each item on it is a blockbuster.

“We’re going to be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans,” said Vilsack soon after the Senate confirmed his nomination, 92-7, on Tuesday. President Biden personally persuaded Vilsack to take the job after he was an active Biden advocate in rural America during the presidential campaign. “He wasn’t looking for this job. But I was persistent,” said Biden.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate-smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America,” said Vilsack in a summary that also could serve as a chore list. “I am optimistic about the future and believe our brightest days are ahead.”

READ MORE: U.S. senate backs Tom Vilsack as Biden's agriculture secretary

Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to administer the oath of office to Vilsack digitally on Wednesday evening. After one day at work, he will own the second-longest tenure in the job. Vilsack served eight years as agriculture secretary during the Obama era. Only one person served longer than eight years at USDA, and that was “Tama Jim” Wilson, who holds the record of service, 16 years, for any cabinet secretary.

As agriculture secretary, Vilsack will be the Biden administration’s link to rural America. Farm groups regard the USDA as their friend in Washington and an intermediary with agencies, such as EPA and IRS, that may be adversarial. Vilsack has a panoramic approach to farm prosperity and rural economic development as a cabinet secretary with initiatives that include biofuels and broadband access.

He also argues that Democrats, for lasting political success, need to be more active in rural areas and find areas of agreement with rural voters, who are heavily Republican. The rural vote was instrumental in Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016.

With Vilsack in place, the administration can flesh out its plans for climate mitigation on the farm. Biden, who describes climate change as an existential threat, wants U.S. agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases. He has said the government could pay farmers to “put their land in conservation” and plant cover crops. With USDA’s broad authority to aid farmers, Vilsack might launch carbon sequestration initiatives that could become a standard part of the federal farm program. There also are suggestions farmers and foresters could earn money from contracts to lock carbon in the soil.

“I think agriculture is probably the first and best place to begin getting some wins in this climate area,” said Vilsack during his February 2 confirmation hearing. “Farmers are prepared for it. Farmers are anxious to do it. If it’s voluntary, if it’s market-based, if it’s incentive-based, I think you will see farmers, ranchers, and producers cooperate extensively.”

READ MORE: Agriculture may be 'first and best' place for climate gains, says Vilsack

Across the food and agriculture sector, from anti-hunger groups to environmentalists and farm groups, Vilsack was welcomed as a familar and reliable face returning to USDA, with a few exceptions. The consumer group Food and Water Watch faulted Vilsack as a backer of corporate consolidation of the food system when government should support sustainable farming, crack down on factory farms, and prioritize consumer health and worker safety. “We have little hope that Tom Vilsack cares to undertake this effort,” said FWW executive director Wenonah Hauter.

President John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association said Vilsack “must commit to change the culture of discrimination at USDA.” Vilsack will be an improvement over Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, said Boyd, but “too little was done in his previous tenure.”

House Agriculture chairman David Scott, speaking to state agriculture officials, said “it’s so important to me and to you for us to get these racial discrimination charges out of the way and resolved and lift up our Black farmers.”

The USDA acknowledged discriminatory practices lasting for decades against Black farmers and paid $2.2 billion to the farmers and their descendants in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010. Also in 2010, while Vilsack was agriculture secretary, the USDA reached a $680 million settlement of a class action lawsuit that alleged discrimination against Native American farmers.

During the Obama era, Vilsack was a proponent of biofuels, larger farm exports, rural economic development, and public nutrition programs. He advised Biden on farm and rural issues during the fall campaign.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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