The problems he struggled with during his first stint as agriculture secretary, from corporate concentration to racism, have not gone away.
It’s not often that politicians get the chance for a “do-over.”
Yet this is happening with President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, the same position the former Iowa governor held during the Obama administration.
The choice of Vilsack to lead the USDA can be read as part of Biden’s effort to show continuity with the Obama years. But the problems that Vilsack struggled with during his first stint as agriculture secretary, from corporate concentration to racism, have not gone away. The incoming secretary must also confront serious food and farm problems that the Trump administration has left unaddressed.
Specifically, while it’s true that farm earnings rose in 2020, that’s largely because government subsidies constituted about 40% of farm income this year. “If not for those subsidies,” The New York Times reported, “U.S. farm income would be poised to decline in 2020.”
Farmers find themselves in this situation, in large part, due to the failure of processors to adapt to the changing consumer habits that the coronavirus pandemic created. The USDA’s response was to launch the “Farmers to Families Food Box” program, using the government as an intermediary to get food from producers to consumers. This effort received mixed reviews for favoring large-scale operations and dropping Black farmers.
While laying the blame on Trump for these challenges is not entirely fair, he did make matters worse for farmers by initiating a trade war with China; afterward, his administration had to bail out farmers to make up for China’s retaliatory tariffs.
Meanwhile, instead of making markets more competitive for farmers, the Trump administration nixed provisions — the GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) rule — from the 2008 Farm Bill that would have helped producers hold processors accountable for unfair and discriminatory practices.
Basically, Vilsack has his work cut out for him.
He faces criticism from Black farmers for his mishandling of a 2010 dust-up involving Shirley Sherrod, the Black Georgia state director of rural development. Vilsack fired Sherrod after a video surfaced showing her apparently making discriminatory statements against white farmers. He later had to apologize when the video was proven a fake.
Vilsack has also been criticized for inaccurately stating that the number of farmers of color increased during his first go as secretary of agriculture. In fact, a change in the USDA’s method of accounting — not an attempt to confront racism — made the population of farmers appear more diverse than it really is.
Meanwhile, between the Obama and Biden administrations, Vilsack became president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. With Vilsack at the helm of this organization, corporate concentration continued apace, as Dairy Farmers of America acquired Dean Foods. Moreover, dairy farmers entered bankruptcy in record numbers as prices plummeted.
According to the Open Markets Institute, fewer and fewer corporations dominate the American food system from seed to plate. This not only subjects farmers to predatory pricing, but hurts consumers at the grocery aisle.
If given a second chance to lead the USDA, Vilsack should use its powers from the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to investigate corporate agribusiness giants and punish wrongdoing. He should throw his support behind the recently introduced “Justice for Black Farmers Act,” which would help aspiring farmers of color to acquire land and training.
Vilsack knows the USDA and the problems facing rural America. He must not lead the agency according to the past, but make amends with those who have been wronged and lay the groundwork for a more fair and equitable food and farm system.