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Biden Compromises At USDA With Vilsack, Pleasing Few In The Midwest

Then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (center) and Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero (left) listen to Central Iowa farmer Aaron Lehman during a tour of Lehman's farm on June 3, 2016.
Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (center) and Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero (left) listen to Iowa farmer Aaron Lehman during a tour of Lehman's farm in 2016.

While President-elect Joe Biden has been under pressure to choose a diverse and forward-thinking cabinet, he’s gone back in time for his nomination for secretary of Agriculture.

His pick, Tom Vilsack, served in that position for all eight years of the Obama administration. And while some see the choice as safe and a good compromise, others from both sides of the political aisle are not happy.

“I was not impressed with Vilsack,” said Darvin Bentlage, a cattle and corn farmer who owns a 1,200-acre plot of land in western Missouri and who voted for Biden.

“He (Vilsack) had listening sessions where he wanted to listen to the farmers, but they more or less turned into his promotion toward more corporate control,” Bentlage said.

Adding fuel to that criticism is Vilsack taking a job leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council after leaving President Obama’s Cabinet. That trade group is seen as an ally to large producers.

But some Trump supporters are just as upset with the choice. Larry Sailer, a semiretired farmer who grows corn and soybeans on 200 acres in northern Iowa, said he doesn’t trust Vilsack because he always seemed to add regulations on farmers.

Sailer specifically pointed to Vilsack’s support of Clean Water Act rules that added restrictions.

“Those types of regulations don’t really do anything to improve conservation, the quality of water, or anything. So, to me, just the regulations are a drag on the farmers, on the economy, basically on anything,” Sailer said.

Another criticism of Vilsack is his lack of action to help Black farmers. Much of that opinion stems from the case of Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia.

She was forced out of her job during Vilsack’s tenure after a right-wing propaganda group released a maliciously edited video of her that made her appear to be racist.

While Vilsack and Obama apologized for Sherrod’s ouster, the damage was done. USDA settled a discrimination lawsuit in 1999 brought by a group of Black farmers, but the department continues to be plagued by discrimination allegations.

“There wasn’t much improvement on that front under Vilsack, and we would hope the Biden administration would commit to finally making things right for Black farmers,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, director of policy and outreach at Empower Missouri, a food, shelter and justice advocacy group.

There is also criticism about Vilsack and how he will handle the nutrition and food aid side of the USDA’s mission, which accounts for a majority of the department’s budget.

There were increases to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, especially during times of recession during the Obama years. But more left-leaning groups wanted someone even more dedicated to that cause and less focused on the business of farming.

Despite the criticism, there is the expectation that Vilsack can be a moderate voice and work toward bipartisanism.

“This appointment looks like it’s kind of somebody who Biden was comfortable with, clearly, and so, in some ways I think this is a compromise choice,” said Keith Boeckelman, a professor of political science at Western Illinois University.

“It also becomes a matter of how effectively he can lobby Congress. When he was appointed the first time, under President Obama, he was unanimously supported,” Boeckelman said. “so I think he has some political capital in Congress.”

One Republican who is already supporting Vilsack is Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley. He told reporters on a conference call after the news of Vilsack’s impending nomination that he would welcome him back to the position for two reasons.

“One, he understands the role of the family farmer and the importance of that institution in the production of food,” Grassley said. “And he’s very aware of the importance of biofuels to the health of agriculture.”

The Senate that will ultimately have to confirm or reject Vilsack’s nomination is much more divided and partisan than the one he sat before in 2008 — as is the national constituency he will have to serve.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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