Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Vows to End USDA Race Inequities

Source: By Mike Dorning, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Tom Vilsack
Tom Vilsack Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack promised at his confirmation hearing Tuesday to “fully, deeply and completely” root out discrimination against black and minority farmers, addressing long-standing complaints of inequitable access to loans and other assistance provided by the cabinet department.

Republican and Democratic senators alike predicted easy confirmation for Vilsack, 70, a familiar figure to official Washington and U.S. farm organizations after serving eight years as Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary. After Vilsack finished testifying, the Senate Agriculture Committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate by a voice vote, without any of the panel’s members dissenting.

Vilsack’s pledge responded to complaints from some black farm advocates that he wasn’t aggressive enough in his prior tenure at the USDA in dealing with the department’s history of racial discrimination. The Biden administration is giving greater prominence to issues of racial inequity, along with food assistance and action to address climate change.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s top-ranking Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, warned Vilsack against imposing “heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all” regulations on farmers as Biden seeks to meet a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions from U.S. agriculture.

Climate Change

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, a farm state which leads the U.S. in corn and hog production, assured senators he favored climate-change policies based on financial incentives to farmers, a theme he often sounded during the presidential campaign when he served as a key rural surrogate for Biden.

“If it’s voluntary, if it’s market-based, if it’s incentive-based, I think you will see farmers, ranchers and producers cooperate extensively,” said Vilsack, who testified virtually from his home in Des Moines, Iowa. A climate-change initiative “has to at the end of the day benefit farmers,” he said.

Vilsack signaled his support for biofuel production, suggesting the government should be more restrained in granting oil refineries waivers from the federal renewable fuel standard that requires gasoline contain minimum levels of ethanol, which is usually derived from corn. Biden during his campaign joined farm groups in criticizing the number of waivers granted by the Trump administration.

The waiver program “was designed for small-scale refineries that are having trouble” and should be “very, very infrequently” given, Vilsack said.

A long record of discrimination in access to USDA loans and other assistance contributed to a dramatic exodus of Blacks from farming, advocates say. African-Americans account for only 1.3% of U.S. farmers, according to the most recent agricultural census, down from 14% a century ago.

Civil-rights advocates criticized Vilsack for his role in the 2010 ouster of Shirley Sherrod, then the USDA’s Georgia state director of rural development, in response to an edited video published by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.

The clip showed Sherrod, who is Black, telling a local NAACP group she was initially reluctant to help a White farmer save his land more than two decades ago, before she worked at the USDA. The clip left out of the speech, intended as a message of racial healing, that Sherrod went on to help the man save his farm.

Internal emails released later showed Sherrod directly pleading with Vilsack to hear out her side of the story, rather than rush to judgment. Obama later apologized for her ouster and Vilsack asked her to return. She declined the offer.

(Updates with panel advancing nomination to full Senate in second paragraph.)