President-elect Joe Biden's continuing work on building his cabinet included the news that former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will leave the U.S. Dairy Export Council to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm Journal Washington correspondent Jim Wiesemeyer says if the news is made official, it won’t be the first time an Agriculture Secretary has served under more than one Administration. Jim Wilson served as Ag Secretary from 1897 to 1913 and did so under three Administrations. However, Wiesemeyer says Vilsack will make history in another way.
“I don't think we've ever seen an Ag secretary come back after being gone, so that's interesting,” Wiesemeyer said.
Biden is expected to confirm his USDA Secretary nomination later this week, but Wiesemeyer says consensus is building Vilsack will be tapped.
“He's a known commodity and amongst the ag sector, who worries about everything, but they don't have to worry about Vilsack,” he adds. “He's a consensus builder. I think that's what's needed.”
Chuck Conner, who served as Deputy Secretary for the US Department of Agriculture before being named president and CEO of National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) in 2009, says agriculture is wading through intense uncertainty right now with coronavirus and other elements at play.
“Obviously coronavirus has thrown a whole new uncertainty on that as we are rapidly adjusting the way that we provide food to Americans in the midst of all that,” Conner says. “You couldn't script any more uncertainty, and II think for farmers and rural Americans, another uncertainty was obviously government and the leadership of government.”
That known commodity aspect also received recognition from key members of Congress. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley tweeting out his approval Wednesday, saying Vilsack understands the importance of preserving the family farm, and the significance of the biofuels industry. Grassley’s approval is big, as he could be a key player in the approval of Vilsack in the Senate.
Conner says based on the eight years Vilsack served as Agriculture Secretary under the Obama Administration, Vilsack proved he believes in science. Conner thinks that will be key in creating climate initiatives and priorities within agriculture.
“In the eight years that he was there, Tom Vilsack believed in in science and believed in evaluating and government actions based upon the best available science,” says Conner. “That's key in this climate debate, because obviously, there are circumstances where there's a lot of hype and a lot of enthusiasm on issues that may not have a whole lot of science backing to them.”
Conner says his experience with Vilsack leads him to believe Vilsack will be passionate about climate change as Agriculture Secretary, but will use science to back up whatever path USDA takes.
While Vilsack will work to shape future agriculture policy, he will also be tasked with possibly implementing the next Farm Bill. In addition to that, Conner says it will be interesting to see what direction Vilsack takes.
“We’re all sort of now evaluating what were the loose ends when he left office,” says Conner. “I think there's a lot of issues out there relative to competition in the marketplace that were still pending when he left last time. It'll be interesting to see if he picks up a lot of those sort of competitiveness issues, particularly in the meat sector that could very well resurface again, and we'll be watching those to see which direction he may be headed on that.”
As agriculture awaits official word on leadership—and priorities—of the next USDA, the new Agriculture Secretary will have a big task: find bipartisan solutions to help shape the future of agriculture policy.