President-elect Biden announced that Tom Vilsack, former secretary of ag under President Obama, “Biotech Governor of the Year” from Iowa and Dairy Checkoff funded millionaire will be his choice for United States Secretary of Agriculture.
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Tom Vilsack (photo via Creative Commons)

Here at Missouri Rural Crisis Center, we have a 35-plus year history of fighting for independent family farms, resilient rural communities, and a food supply that is diverse, democratic and fair. Unfortunately, Tom Vilsack would be one of our last choices for Secretary of Agriculture, and we say that because of history.

A brief history of Vilsack:

• In 2001, as governor of Iowa, Vilsack was named “Biotech Governor of the Year.” Through biotechnology and lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws, the seed and chemical industries have become highly concentrated and now are largely owned by foreign multi-national corporations.

• In 2009, MRCC with other statewide farm organizations sent 25,000 signatures to Sec. Vilsack demanding that USDA stop providing taxpayer-backed guaranteed loans to support the building of more corporate factory farms while the federal government was simultaneously spending millions of taxpayer dollars buying meat off the open market to offset massive corporate overproduction and low prices. We asked USDA to instead direct those public dollars to independent family farm livestock producers who were facing devastatingly low prices due to this corporate overproduction. In our meeting with Vilsack in D.C., he was adamant that USDA was not going to stop federally backing loans for corporate CAFOs.

• One of President Obama’s campaign promises was to enforce anti-trust laws—and thousands of farmers believed him and participated in the process just to have Vilsack decide to do nothing in spite of the critical importance. Sec. Vilsack ultimately blocked attempts to put in place anti-trust enforcement of the livestock industry (named the GIPSA Rule) that would have decreased the extreme corporate control of food production and begin to establish fair markets for independent family farmers. When Vilsack sacked this rule, family farmers and rural Americans lost hope and trust in him.

• In 2014, Sec. Vilsack worked with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to implement a mandatory second beef checkoff, a mandatory tax paid for by cattle farmers that would have been a slush fund for corporate ag interests at the expense of family farmers.

• While under Vilsack’s leadership since 2017, the U.S. Dairy Export Council shored up the interests of large-scale dairy processors while nearly 10,000 family dairy farmers were put out of business.

This is not leadership; it’s part of the problem. The bottom line is, during Sec. Vilsack’s tenure as governor of Iowa and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he has promoted policies that fueled agribusiness consolidation and control, while the number of family farms shrank and rural communities got smaller and poorer.

Vilsack has compared corporate agriculture and family farm agriculture to his “two sons,” saying they are both different and there is room for both of them. Unfortunately, this analogy is dishonest and dangerous. The problem with his “two sons” propaganda, is that corporate agriculture is doing everything they can to put independent family farms out-of-business and push them off the land, and they are doing it with the policies and checkoff dollars that Vilsack has vehemently promoted.

President-elect Biden should appoint someone that would champion open, fair and competitive livestock markets and a healthy functioning marketplace that would provide the foundation for good jobs and opportunities in agriculture, stop price manipulation, discrimination, and collusion in agriculture and food production, and promote family farmers getting a fair price for what they produce, as opposed to the current “race to the bottom” system.

If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the current centralized corporate controlled food and ag system does not work. It does not work for farmers, workers, or consumers. We need change. President Biden’s selection of Vilsack is a pick that signals the continuation of the same failed policies that got us here.

—Roger Allison is a livestock and grain farmer from Howard County, Missouri, working with Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

One of Australia’s foremost dairy breeders Murray Sowter was recognised with the Lex Bunn Memorial Award at International Dairy Week.

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