Senate approves Vilsack for Agriculture Department again

Associated Press
Already the second-longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began an unprecedented return engagement Tuesday as the Senate confirmed his nomination to the post in the Biden administration.

WASHINGTON (AP) – Already the second-longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began an unprecedented return engagement Tuesday as the Senate confirmed his nomination to the post in the Biden administration.

The Senate voted 92-7 Tuesday to confirm Vilsack as Agriculture secretary, his second run at the Cabinet post. Vilsack spent eight years leading the same department for former President Barack Obama's entire administration.

Vilsack's "deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever,"  U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said Tuesday before the Senate voted. "Our farmers, our families, our rural communities have so many challenges right now."

In his testimony, Vilsack, 70, heavily endorsed boosting climate-friendly agricultural industries such as the creation of biofuels, saying "Agriculture is one of our first and best ways to get some wins" on climate change.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America," Vilsack said.

National Corn Growers Association President John Linder said corn growers appreciated Vilsack's commitment supporting the biofuels industry. 

"We appreciate the positive role (Vilsack) sees agriculture playing in addressing climate change, during his confirmation hearing," Linder said.

Vilsack proposed "building a rural economy based on biomanufacturing" and "turning agricultural waste into a variety of products." He pledged to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to "spur the industry" on biofuels.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper believes that Vilsack is the right leader at the right time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"He intimately understands that agriculture can and should play a vital role in addressing our world’s most pressing challenges—from food and energy security to climate change and environmental justice," Cooper said. "He knows that renewable fuels like ethanol provide a solution that is available today for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, slashing harmful tailpipe pollutants, enhancing domestic energy security, and bolstering the rural economy."

Julie Anna Potts, President and CEO of the North American Meat Institute welcomes Vilsack’s leadership and experience at USDA, especially for an industry that was hit hardest by the pandemic in April, 2020, when workers were sickened by the virus, forcing plants to close their operations.

"We welcome his leadership and experience as we build on effective protections, vaccinate frontline workers as quickly as possible, feed American families, and keep our farm economy working," Potts said.

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said U.S. agriculture has an effective advocate in Tom Vilsack.

“We in the dairy community who have had the opportunity to work with him have seen first-hand his deep passion for rural America and his commitment to advancing agriculture and the communities it serves, from farmers and food-sector workers to the consumers and businesses that depend on USDA to meet their needs every day, in every way," Mulhern said. "That’s especially important in light of today’s pressing challenges, which include a farm economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic; climate change, sustainability and the environment; nutrition and food insecurity; international trade policies that limit U.S. exports; labor shortages that are worsening with time; and the legacies of societal injustice that need to be addressed."

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew echoes Mulhern, saying Vilsack will have a full plate in addressing the issues facing agriculture, noting that pandemic recovery tops the list.

"That means ensuring that all Americans have access to food, providing farmers of all types and sizes with the relief they need to stay in business, helping rural hospitals treat critically ill patients and distribute vaccines, and protecting workers across the food chain from covid-19," Larew said.

While the pandemic is hardly the only problem beleaguering agriculture, Larew says the industry is also grappling with a rapidly changing climate, unchecked corporate power, persistent oversupply, institutional racism, an aging population, and insufficient local processing infrastructure.

"During his second stint as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack can’t let any of these issues fall by the wayside. We look forward to working with him towards lasting, meaningful reforms that will secure a bright and prosperous future for family farmers and their communities,” Larew said.

With systemic racial inequity now a nationwide talking point, Vilsack also envisioned creating an "equity taskforce" inside the department. Its job, he said, would be to identify what he called "intentional or unintentional barriers" that prevent or discourage farmers of color from properly accessing federal assistance programs. 

Vilsack also heavily backed the SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — as a key instrument in helping the country's most vulnerable families survive and recover from the pandemic era. His Trump-era predecessor, Sonny Perdue, had sought to purge hundreds of thousands of people from the SNAP-recipient lists. 

American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall says Vilsack and his partners in the agriculture industry have a lot of work to do overcoming the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We must commit to resuming CARES Act programs and continue to build on advances made in trade. We must move forward on the successes made in climate-smart practices while seeking partnerships to ensure new environmental policies remain market-based and voluntary," Duvall said. "We also recognize the importance of strengthening the farm bill and bringing broadband to every community in America."

Vilsack faced minimal opposition throughout the confirmation process.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer and Donnelle Eller of the DesMoines Register contributed to this report.