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Tom Vilsack’s Cozy Relationship With Big Ag Makes Him A Non-Starter at USDA

The Biden administration will fail rural America right out of the gate with a choice like Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Those senators who claim to support rural America must reject Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Those senators who claim to support rural America must reject Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Tom Vilsack wasn’t the right choice for Secretary of Agriculture in 2008 when President Obama nominated him to serve in that role. He isn’t the right choice now, either. With Vilsack, we’re guaranteed years more of corporate agribusinesses running roughshod over family farms and rural communities, and years more of the USDA prioritizing corporate farm policy at the expense of the rest of the agency’s mandate. Years more of declining rural communities, increasing food insecurity and dangerous working conditions for food and farmworkers. Bad policy that allowed for the takeover of corporate agribusiness got us into this mess. It’s unlikely Tom Vilsack will get us out.

Iowa’s Family Farms and Workers Already Lost Big Under Vilsack’s Leadership

Many people associate USDA solely with rural communities and farm policy. That might make Tom Vilsack—former Iowa governor who later headed the USDA under the Obama administration—seem like the logical choice. But his track record shows a cozy relationship with corporate agriculture. He was governor of Iowa during the state’s rapid factory farm expansion; under his tenure, Iowa lost two-thirds of its family-scale hog farms and shed tens of thousands of farm jobs.

As Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack failed to hold up his promise of addressing antitrust issues in the agricultural industry. A series of public meetings on the issue held jointly with the Department of Justice never resulted in regulatory action, and USDA policy continued to favor large-scale, corporate farming at the expense of family farms. Vilsack went on to become a lobbyist for the Dairy Export Industry, raking in more than $1 million in his first year, at a time when prospects for dairy farmers were so bleak that some received a suicide prevention hotline number along with their dairy checks. The prospect of Vilsack returning to head the USDA is an egregious example of a revolving door between industry and government.

The Question Of Serving Rural or Urban Communities Is A False One

Choosing Vilsack instead of other potential nominees like Congresswoman Marcia Fudge ensures the agency will continue to prioritize one small part of its mission — agricultural policy — at the expense of many other very important issues. Many people don’t realize that USDA also oversees food safety, animal health, nutrition assistance programs and nutrition services, the Forest Service, rural housing and rural development — a vast mandate critical to the health and well-being of everyone.

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Unfortunately, the debate between status-quo candidates like Vilsack and Heidi Keitkamp and progressive leaders like Marcia Fudge is sometimes framed as a choice between serving farmers’ interests or focusing on hunger and food insecurity. This is a false choice grossly mischaracterized as a rural vs. urban dynamic. For instance, hunger is often seen as primarily an urban issue, but in reality, rural counties consistently receive federal food assistance at higher rates than those living in urban counties. A 2018 Daily Yonder analysis ranked the share of county population participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (administered by USDA) and found that 85 of the top 100 counties were rural. The 2018 American Community Survey found that the non-metro poverty rate was 16.1% compared to 12.6% in metro areas.

We Urge Senators To Reject Tom Vilsack For Secretary Of Agriculture

Four more years of Vilsack means four more years of corporate-friendly policies that drain rural wealth and increase food insecurity. It will be a seamless transition from Trump’s USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to Vilsack: he will continue the business as usual approach of working on behalf of Big Ag at the expense of struggling people across the country.

This isn’t another tired rural vs. urban debate. It is a choice between everyday people — rural and urban — versus corporate profits. The Biden Administration, in nominating Vilsack, has already failed rural America — over a month before Biden’s inauguration. Those senators who claim to support rural America must reject Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary.

Krissy Kasserman

Krissy Kasserman is the National Factory Farm Campaigner at Food and Water Watch. She works to take our national fight against factory farms to the next level as we battle corporate agriculture and work towards a more sustainable, safer, and equitable food system.

Amanda Claire Starbuck

Amanda Claire Starbuck

Amanda Claire Starbuck is the Senior Food Researcher and Policy Analyst on the Food Team at Food & Water Watch. She previously worked as a Policy Analyst for Citizen Health & Safety at the Center for Effective Government, where she focused on chemical hazards and fracking. Amanda holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy & Religion from the University of North Dakota, and a master’s in Global Environmental Policy from American University.

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