Vilsack’s return to the USDA top post is being applauded by Midwestern US groups and lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Vilsack is currently chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which promotes sales of American dairy products abroad.
Vilsack has been a proponent of international trade who criticized President Donald Trump’s tariff war with China and has shown a willingness to build consensus with agricultural interests. He is well-known and supported by farm and biofuel groups.
As US Agriculture secretary for eight years, he was Barack Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet member. Biden set a goal during the campaign to bring U.S. agriculture’s net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero. Biden stressed voluntary payments to create incentives for farmers.
In an interview after the November election, Vilsack suggested the new administration would seek common ground between agricultural groups and the environmental movement.
“Given the vice president’s call for unity and the need for the country to unify to get us to a better place, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an effort to convene and bring people together people from the farm groups and the environmental groups,” Vilsack said in a November interview with Bloomberg News.
Under Obama, Vilsack publicly promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) along with other Cabinet officials and he supported Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement at the Dairy Export Council.
Sen. Grassley said he liked what Vilsack did as the secretary of Agriculture for eight years.
“I would be glad, if he wants me to, to speak for him before the Agriculture Committee,” said Grassley.
Former agriculture secretaries Dan Glickman and Mike Espy, who served in the Clinton era, said this week that farming was likely to remain the focus of the USDA, despite the hopes of reformers.
“USDA focuses on production agriculture because the Congress wants it to focus on production agriculture,” said Glickman. “All these functions are very important, but the production function still leads the rest,” said Espy. “But it’s closely followed on by the nutrition and (rural) development and the rest of them, so you can’t sacrifice one to the good of the other. The secretary, whoever he or she might be, has to balance all the equities.”
Vilsack will reportedly have a broader portfolio than just agriculture. Being friends with the Bidens for a long time, Vilsack will likely be one of Biden’s trusted advisors on several topics. Vilsack will have to tread carefully regarding dairy trade policy due to his former CEO position at a dairy group. Those who know Vilsack the best say he is a consensus builder, bringing in stakeholders groups impacted by a coming decision on important topics.