Biden to nominate Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture, Forestry

December 11, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff

HERALD AND NEWS — President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Tom Vilsack to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to sources close to the Biden-Harris transition team. Vilsack will reprise the role of Secretary of Agriculture, having filled the post for eight years under President Barack Obama.

Though not a farmer or rancher by trade, Vilsack served as the governor of Iowa in the early 2000s, becoming closely acquainted with agricultural policy, and he currently runs the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Though he’ll be the second Secretary of Agriculture to serve under two different administrations, he’ll be the first to return to the post after leaving it.

Activists hoping to focus the USDA’s mission on providing food assistance to low-income Americans (current secretary Sonny Perdue has attempted to roll back food stamp and school lunch benefits, which provide millions of Americans with food they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford) expressed disappointment at Vilsack’s nomination, though he did bolster those programs as Obama’s Agriculture Secretary.

Transition staff says Biden’s USDA will likely play a larger role in combatting the climate crisis through market-based programs that incentivize sustainable farming practices. It could also prioritize a new approach to forestry under the U.S. Forest Service, which is facing criticism for fire suppression that contributed to the West’s worst wildfire season in recent history this year.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, said he only learned that Vilsack was in the running for USDA Secretary during the past several days. Lobbyist groups on both sides of the aisle had been sparring over former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who environmental organizations felt had ties with the fossil fuel industry and corporate agribusiness, and Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a longtime member of the House Agriculture Committee who Biden since appointed to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Keppen said Vilsack is a welcome pick for Agriculture Secretary given his previous experience in the same role.

“Tom Vilsack’s a known quantity, and we have a relationship with him,” Keppen said.

Vilsack will likely have to pick up the pieces of President Donald Trump’s trade war, which Biden is expected to reverse. Over the past two years, the USDA handed out more government aid to farmers to make up for those trade losses than ever before. Keppen said Vilsack has a good background in trade, making him a good person to handle that transition.

“Vilsack’s strength is trade, and that right now that is something that’s a concern to a lot of American producers,” Keppen said.

Keppen also said the USDA’s potential focus on climate solutions could bring environmental and agriculture advocacy groups together when the two have largely been at odds when it came to climate change. Plants are a carbon sink, and practices like no-till drilling and cover crops allow farmers to store even more carbon in their fields. That could allow for a system of carbon credits, which provide money to producers who apply these practices.

Vilsack hasn’t had any direct involvement in the Klamath Basin, though local ag stakeholders are curious about carbon sequestration policies that could come out of the next administration. Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, agreed that Vilsack is a solid pick, citing his work in the Obama administration and willingness to return to the post.

“He’s somebody who really does try to have a big tent,” Simmons said. “This guy wanted to do it again—he must be committed to the job.”

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