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Tom Vilsack will serve Midwestern farmers well as ag secretary

Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images Tom Vilsack speaking at podium with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in background
BACK AGAIN: If confirmed as Joe Biden’s secretary of agriculture, this will be the second time Tom Vilsack has served in the role. He was ag secretary in the Obama administration from 2009 through 2017.
National farm leaders support Vilsack’s nomination as head of USDA.

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Biden picked Tom Vilsack as his agriculture secretary. What does that mean for Midwestern farmers?

Vilsack is a familiar face. He served as U.S. secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration for eight years, from 2009 to 2017. Prior to being ag secretary, Vilsack was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. He has a law degree from Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y.

Biden likely selected Vilsack because the two worked well together during their eight years in the Obama administration. Vilsack also has experience dealing with a wide variety of issues USDA handles, ranging from administering programs that help farmers improve conservation practices on their farms to helping feed needy Americans through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Vilsack’s previous experience as ag secretary will allow him to roll up his sleeves and get a lot of work done during his first 100 days in office.

Dairy experience

Biden’s pick also will offer Democrats a chance to rebuild export markets and move ahead on issues such as climate change.

After stepping down as ag secretary in 2017, Vilsack became president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. During the past four years under his leadership, U.S. dairy exports have skyrocketed — even last year during the pandemic. Dairy exports in October were up 14% from October 2019. The increase was led by whey product exports to China being up 328% from a year ago and a 20% increase in nonfat dry milk-skim milk powder exports to Southeast Asia.

Not all the final numbers are in yet, but it’s quite likely the U.S. will set a record for dairy exports in 2020, thanks in large part to the work Vilsack did at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Since 2017, Vilsack has served on the board of directors for Feeding America. He cares a lot about poor families, and I’m sure he will do all he can to help feed the poor as ag secretary. Combined with his experience promoting dairy exports the past four years, I think he will work to include dairy products into the USDA-administered WIC and SNAP, which also will benefit dairy farmers.

Ag leaders from across the country seem pleased with Biden’s selection of Vilsack as ag secretary. American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall says he is looking forward to working with Vilsack again.

 “The American Farm Bureau Federation welcomes the news that Tom Vilsack has been nominated to be secretary of agriculture,” Duvall says. “His leadership as the 30th secretary of agriculture and as governor of a state reliant on agriculture is evidence of his qualification to serve in this role.

“Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand. He believes in a ‘big tent’ philosophy that supports all types of production, and understands the importance of respecting farmers and ranchers as partners worthy of support in the race to achieve sustainability goals.

“Tom and I built a good relationship during his first term as ag secretary, and we’ve built on that relationship in his role with the U.S. Dairy Export Council. I look forward to sitting down with him again to continue our conversation on how to address the opportunities and challenges facing agriculture and rural communities. The pandemic revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of our food system, which Tom has had a front row seat to witness.

“Together, we must prepare to tackle a new farm bill and build on efforts to create a fair marketplace for U.S. agriculture to compete globally. It is essential we ensure climate policies respect farmers and remain market-based and voluntary. And we must end the digital divide that puts rural America at a disadvantage.

“Tom Vilsack earned a reputation for rising above partisanship to serve farmers and ranchers, and I’m confident he’ll continue to do so. The American Farm Bureau stands ready to support Tom and work closely with him, knowing his success as ag secretary correlates directly with America’s farmers and ranchers, as well as our rural communities, having the support they need to flourish.”

Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says Vilsack is adding another chapter to an already storied career in agriculture.

“He has the unique skill set to be able to hit the ground running on day one, and cattle producers are thankful for this continuity,” Woodall said in a press release. “Secretary Vilsack knows the issues facing America’s cattle producers and can utilize his extensive experience to showcase the positive impact we have on food security, nutrition and our natural resources. We look forward to working with him for the betterment of beef farmers and ranchers.”

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew says he is pleased with Vilsack’s selection as ag secretary.

“Between pandemic recovery, the imminent threat of climate change, rampant corporate power and chronic overproduction, family farmers and ranchers have significant challenges ahead of them in the next several years — and they need a strong secretary of agriculture behind them to make it through in one piece,” Larew says. “After eight years leading USDA, Tom Vilsack has the necessary qualifications and experience to steer the agency through these turbulent times.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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