Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary pick, shares insight on Biden administration

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has appeared on several webinars in Colorado recently in which he shared his insight on the future Biden administration and what it might mean for agriculture.

Editor's note: This story was written before Tom Vilsack was named as President-elect Joe Biden's pick for Agriculture Secretary on Dec. 8.

As 2020 draws to a close, the proverbial crystal ball is probably a bit murkier than usual. But few people are likely to have a clearer perspective on what’s ahead on the policy horizon than former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, currently president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and board member for Feeding America, as well as a senior adviser at Colorado State University.

As a former Obama cabinet member, Vilsack has been influential in the transition process for President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20.

Vilsack was recently invited to share his views and insights during a virtual symposium covering “lessons learned and 2021 future-proofing,” hosted by Colorado Proud.

The need for diversity, resiliency and sustainability were big themes the former Iowa governor and other panelists hammered on repeatedly.

“I think one of the great things about Colorado is its tremendous diversity,” he said when asked to share his impressions of the state’s agriculture. “That’s a plus, that’s an advantage, especially at a time when prices have been up and down. I think it can help you withstand difficulties and challenges in a little better shape.”

The state also has a strong commitment to producing value-added items, not just commodities, especially in the natural foods and organic area, he said.

The close linkages between what is produced and consumed in the state is another attribute that adds to its resiliency, he said.

Still, 2020 has tested the food system like no other time in recent memory, which is as true for Colorado as anywhere. It’s also brought to the forefront the need to focus on making the food system stronger and more resilient, he said.

“We saw producers forced to destroy or dump agricultural products, which was heartbreaking, considering there were so many families that needed help,” he said. The situation proved farmers need better incentives to donate food to food banks, or to at least insure they are not penalized, or incur additional costs, for doing so, he said.

Farmers also need more alternative revenue streams. In a future Biden administration, those are likely to come in the form of incentives for renewable energy, soil health, carbon sequestration and ecosystem services, Vilsack said.

He also predicted support for local and regional food systems will be a high priority.

Consumers need a better understanding “of what’s being produced, how to get it, when it’s available, where is the need and how to link that all together,” he said, adding that farmers need assistance with negotiating contracts and more stability in the marketplace.

One thing he would like to see the federal government do is better leverage its $210 million farm loan portfolio and incentivize private lenders to support more on-farm innovation.

To make all that happen, it will be critical to raise the stature of the industry as a whole, he said.

“These are not separate industries, with the food industry on one side and agricultural producers on another side,” he said. “If you combine all of the people employed and connected to this industry, it represents 20 percent of the economy and the single largest industry in the country. Recognizing that makes it easier for those in political life to provide the resources we need to make these things happen.”

Commenting on the formal transition process in Washington, Vilsack gave a shout-out to Robert Bonnie, who is heading up the transition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bonnie served as undersecretary of natural sciences and environment during Vilsack’s eight-year tenure with the Obama administration.

“He understands the challenges in the West and has a sensitivity to this region,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack himself is the leading candidate to become the new agriculture secretary, emerging on a short list that also included former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana Rep. Marcia Fudge and former deputy agriculture secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

According to reporting by Politico, leading the $150 billion Agriculture Department — typically regarded as a low-ranking cabinet post, despite its sprawling mission — has taken on greater prominence in recent weeks, as USDA is poised to play a central role in the COVID-19 response, helping to feed millions of Americans in need, and in Biden’s climate change agenda.

Vilsack said the future administration recognizes the importance of international trade and will push forward with implementation of new agreements like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA.

He did note that future trade relations with China are still uncertain, contingent on whether China makes good on existing trade commitments.

“I think they’ll take a wait-and-see attitude on China,” he said of the future administration.

While the new leadership will likely be open to debates on farm payment reform and mandatory country-of-origin labeling, Vilsack said to be successful, COOL would have to be done “right.” Any labeling strategy would need to avoid running afoul of the World Trade Organization, which derailed the previous effort, he said.