WASHINGTON – Shortly after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. beat President Trump last month, Tom Vilsack, the former Secretary of Agriculture and one of Mr Biden’s early supporters, received an angry phone call from a former aide. Despite the elation over Mr. Biden’s victory, the Democrats in rural America were once again crushed.
“It is not an overnight problem that needs to be resolved,” said Vilsack, according to his former deputy chief of staff Anne McMillan, who related the conversation. “It is a long-term investment in the understanding, appreciation, and respect of rural America.”
This month, Mr. Biden entrusted Mr. Vilsack with the task, getting him to repeat the role of Secretary of Agriculture, which he held for eight years in the Obama administration, and making him the Biden administration’s main ambassador for American farmers . But for a well-experienced candidate, the backlash against Mr Vilsack was fierce, exposing the divisions within the Democratic Party and opposition to corporate influence smoldering among the progressives.
If confirmed, Mr. Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, will return to the helm of the Department of Agriculture at a time when American farmers have been beaten by Mr. Trump’s trade wars and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Smaller farmers in particular have been hit hard, and farm bankruptcies have increased in recent years, even with record amounts of federal aid. Family-owned milk producers had a particularly hard time as prices fell due to an oversupply of milk. In Wisconsin, half of the herds have disappeared in the past 15 years.
Mr. Vilsack is facing a great challenge. Progressives and environmental groups warn that he is too friendly with large industrial farms. In addition, farmers who largely voted for Mr Trump are concerned that more rules are in store under a Democratic government.
The farm states have been a stronghold for Republicans for the past decade and despite the frustration of Mr Trump amongst farmers over his trade policies, the president still dominated heavily rural areas in the 2020 elections, losing some farm states like Wisconsin due to the strength of Mr. Biden’s support in cities and suburbs.
Some Democrats are eager to gain a foothold in rural America and fear that Mr. Vilsack is not the ideal ambassador. Critic of Mr. Vilsack who recently earned $ 1 million For a year as a dairy lobbyist, worry that he favors big industry over independent farmers and is not doing enough to keep workers safe.
Environmental and agricultural groups have ridiculed him for being too easy on the “Big Ag” and pointed to the rapid consolidation of the agricultural sector that he was watching when companies like Monsanto and Bayer merged. Food Safety and Labor advocates also criticized his decision as secretary to allow a significant increase in the speed of slaughter lines in poultry factories, which can increase the risk of worker injury, as well as revising the chicken inspection process to allow meat packing workers to perform some of the tasks previously observed by government inspectors.
“If past is a prologue, we have strong concerns that he will continue to make bids for the industry,” said Zach Corrigan, senior attorney at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watch group that opposes Mr. Vilsack’s nomination .
“I think it will collapse under pressure from the Ag lobby, the subsidy lobby and big agriculture,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a non-partisan organization that criticizes industrial agriculture. “I really feel that we need new leadership for various reasons.”
While many farmer groups like the National Farmers Union and Feeding America have expressed their support for his nomination. Some farmers are concerned that the Biden government may introduce new and onerous regulations.
“Probably more rules instead of less,” said John Heisdorffer Jr., an Iowa soybean farmer and past president of the American Soybean Association. “In the farming community we seem to be ruled to death.”
Mr Vilsack has been particularly criticized for the dwindling fate of the black farmers who have long complained about discrimination in access to land and credit. He was also at the center of a racist firestorm during the Obama administration. In 2010, he hastily fired Shirley Sherrod, a Black Agriculture Department official, after a conservative blogger posted a misleading video clip that appeared to show her admitting antipathy towards a white farmer. He later apologized and tried to hire her again.
Mr. Vilsack is rejoining the Agriculture Department in a very different climate than he was during his eight years under Mr. Obama. The pandemic has dealt intensively with the struggles and dangers of the employees of meat packaging companies. Thousands of workers contracted the coronavirus after many plants failed to take basic precautions to protect them.
In late April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of enacting an executive order effectively forcing meat packers to stay open even as the virus population increased. The government claimed the move was meant to protect the country’s meat supplies, which industry claims have been jeopardized by plant closures. So far, however, there has been no evidence of widespread bottlenecks.
Given the wide scope and support the meat industry enjoyed under Mr Trump, union leaders say Mr Vilsack needs to play a more active role in protecting meat pack workers.
“Due to the experience with the pandemic, there are different expectations of the Minister of Agriculture than during Tom Vilsack’s previous service. A higher priority must be given to the safety and needs of the workers who make our food supplies and all Americans faced with food insecurity, ”said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the retail, wholesale and department stores union that represents workers in poultry Works in the south.
In his first tenure as secretary, Mr Vilsack disappointed smallholder and consumer advocates who hoped he would look at the consolidation of the agricultural and meat packaging industry, where some large corporations control everything from seeds to slaughterhouses.
At the beginning of the Obama administration, Vilsack vowed to tackle the struggles of smaller farms and help promote the broader rural economy.
“The central question is whether farmers and ranchers in this country are currently getting a fair shock.” Mr. Vilsack said in 2010 to an audience of farmers and agricultural experts in Iowa.
Throughout the year, Mr Vilsack held some kind of listening tourStop at Normal, Ala., To discuss the poultry industry and Fort Collins, Colorado to talk about beef. He was joined by then Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Chief Antitrust Officer Christine Varney, who raised the specter that Mr. Obama was serious about curbing large-scale agriculture and the meat industry.
At the time, Charles E. Grassley, a fellow Iowan and powerful Republican Senator, praised Mr. Vilsack’s efforts and said he had never seen US collaboration like this. and the Justice Department, which was “badly needed” to resolve the consolidation problem.
In the end, Mr. Vilsack and the Obama Justice Department made no antitrust efforts. “There was nothing,” said Mr. Corrigan. “It shrank and went away.”
Mr. Grassley expressed support for Mr. Vilsack’s nomination.
The pandemic has also shown in new ways how consolidation in the industry can make the country’s food supplies vulnerable to disruption. Closing just a few slaughterhouses, even for a few weeks in April, reduced pork production by up to 5 percent, leading to mass murders and wastage of thousands of pigs that could not be processed.
However, it is unlikely that the liquidation of the big meat packers will be on Mr Vilsack’s priority list.
“The main priority over the next few years will be to get the economy going,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents thousands of meat packers and supported Mr Vilsack’s nomination.
Since leaving the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack has been the executive director of the US Dairy Export Council, a lobby group. In an interview with the Iowa starting line On the April 2019 podcast, Mr Vilsack made clear his opposition to the policies promoted by other Democratic presidential candidates who would dissolve the corporate agricultural conglomerates.
“There are a significant number of people hired and employed by these companies here in Iowa,” said Vilsack. “You are essentially saying to these people,” You may be unemployed. “This is not a successful message for me.”
Mr. Vilsack said that such ideas usually come from experts in “think tanks in urban centers” who have little experience with rural locations and rural people. He said smallholder farmers would benefit from measures that would lower their costs and give them greater control over their ability to set prices and connect directly with buyers.
Mr Vilsack is expected to be a sharp contrast to Mr Trump’s Agriculture Minister Sonny Perdue, who has been praised by some farmers for showering them with subsidies but has received criticism within the department for retiring career workers and doing economic research had politicized. Last year, Mr. Perdue drew the ire of many of his in-house economists when he decided to relocate the agency’s agricultural research unit from Washington to Kansas City, causing a wave of departures and bringing their work to a standstill.
A Biden interim official rejected the suggestion that Mr Vilsack was just an advocate of industrial agriculture, noting that as Minister of Agriculture he had invested in regional farmers’ markets and organic farming. The official also found that the Department of Justice, not the Department of Agriculture, has the authority to stop mergers.
For those who have worked with Mr Vilsack, the idea that he is just an ally of industrial agriculture is unfair. Ms. McMillan, the former assistant chief of staff, said that her former boss always had the plight of smallholder farmers in mind, but that he also had to watch out for the wider industry.
“His job required him to advance rural America and the Ag industries and feed the people,” she said. “You can’t deal with the entire spectrum.”