His eight years as agriculture secretary are over, but Tom Vilsack wants to keep fighting for rural America

Source: By Joe Morton, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Monday, December 19, 2016

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has some advice for fellow Democrats looking to start a fresh conversation with rural America.

“The first thing you say to the people of rural America is ‘Thank you,’ ” Vilsack said in an interview with The World-Herald. “You acknowledge what they do for the rest of the country, because it never gets acknowledged.”

It’s not a new message for the former Iowa governor, but it’s one that has more relevance than ever following a presidential election where rural voters proved pivotal and the disconnect between country and city folks is only widening.

Echoing what he often says in speeches, Vilsack called for recognizing the parts of America that provide the nation with food, energy and a disproportionate share of those who serve in uniform.

“You say to the folks in San Francisco ‘Who’s defending you? Who’s created the ability for you to be an entrepreneur, because you don’t have to worry about growing your own food? … You need to understand how much richer your life is because of rural America.’ ”

Vilsack will soon be packing up the many home-state mementos in his corner office overlooking the National Mall: the Hawkeye State maps and photos, his Norman Borlaug medallion and the statue from the Iowa National Guard.

He’s the last member of Obama’s original Cabinet who is still in the same role and one of the longest-serving agriculture secretaries in history. The record-holder is another Iowan: James Wilson, who served as secretary for 16 years under three presidents.

During his eight years in charge, Vilsack has worked on everything from fostering biotech innovation to combating opioid abuse.

From the time he was tapped for the post, Vilsack has had to balance competing skepticisms.

Those on the left have worried that he was too close to the big agribusiness and corporate interests, a centrist overly willing to compromise. Conservatives have viewed any talk about government programs with a raised eyebrow, particularly nutrition assistance, commonly referred to as food stamps.

But Vilsack has won praise from different parts of the ideological spectrum for the way he’s approached the job. Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill said Vilsack understands the challenges faced by rural America.

“He has been a forceful and unrelenting advocate for agriculture and rural America among his fellow Cabinet members and agency colleagues, most importantly as a bridge builder, always striving for common ground,” Hill said. “Oftentimes Washington, D.C., and even citizens today in general assume an unfortunate perception of agriculture, and Secretary Vilsack has been tireless to mend that.”

Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen, who has worked with many agriculture secretaries over 40 years, recalls how he initially opined quite publicly that Vilsack was not the best candidate for the job.

Hansen fretted then that Gov. Vilsack had been too cozy with big farming operations in Iowa. But he said recently that Vilsack proved to be the most knowledgeable, hands-on secretary he has seen, a champion for tackling climate change, promoting renewable energy and fostering rural development.

“Tom Vilsack has far exceeded my expectations, and I’m going to really be sad to see him go,” Hansen said.

Vilsack, who wears black J.B. Hill cowboy boots with his suits, is something of a rural America emissary to government and an ambassador from government to rural America. He laments that government has become synonymous in some circles with fraud, waste and abuse and not with the ways it makes the country better.

He rattles off figures such as the 1.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture home loans that have helped Americans put roofs over their heads.

“There are 19 million Americans who have cleaner water as a result of investments we’ve made in over 5,000 water projects,” he said. “There are almost 6 million Americans that have more stable and reliable electricity because of the 185,000 miles of … transmission lines that we’ve improved. There are nearly 6 million Americans in rural America that have access to high-speed broadband because of investments the government made.”

He said robust international trade has helped bolster farm income in the face of decreasing commodity prices. He points to communities with improved schools, hospitals, mental health facilities, libraries and community centers because of the USDA. He said millions of kids eat more healthful meals, and thousands of Americans have avoided food-borne illnesses because of new performance standards.

He said the USDA has invested $30 billion in Iowa alone during his eight years at the department.

“But nobody knows it because we don’t market it. We just do it,” he said.

Vilsack is a Pittsburgh native who was adopted after being born in an orphanage. After earning a law degree and marrying his wife, Christie, the couple moved to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he got into politics after the mayor was shot by an irate citizen. He served as mayor, as a state legislator and as governor for eight years — a résumé that Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said made Vilsack well-suited for his USDA position. Even Vilsack’s law practice days are key, Grassley said.

“He was a lawyer representing a lot of farmers that were hurt in the agricultural depression of the 1980s, so he’s seen it when government screws things up,” Grassley said.

Grassley particularly cited Vilsack’s actions on civil rights issues and his advancement of rules aimed at making it easier to prove a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act, which is intended to prevent monopoly practices.

But those new rules illustrate the difficulty in balancing interests. They produced a howl of protest from various industry groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which said the rules will open the door to baseless litigation.

“If USDA was interested in real solutions rather than increased government regulations they wouldn’t have rushed these rules out the door at the very close of the administration’s term, bypassing any input from industry,” said association President Tracy Brunner. “Cattlemen and women don’t appreciate Secretary Vilsack throwing a grenade in the building as he abandons it.”

In another controversial issue, Vilsack was caught up in a racially charged firestorm in 2010 when he forced Shirley Sherrod to resign as Georgia state director of rural development after blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video of her remarks to the NAACP. After it was later discovered that her comments had been selectively edited, Vilsack apologized for what he characterized as his own hasty reaction.

On the broader issue of civil rights, Vilsack addressed long-standing lawsuits and worked on diversifying the workforce. Nebraskan John Berge, who was one of the first aides to join Vilsack at the USDA in 2009, said those efforts were at the top of Vilsack’s agenda in a department that had been called “the last plantation” because of its discrimination against employees and farmers.

Berge, now general manager of the North Platte Natural Resources District, said those actions will have lasting impacts on those who had faced discrimination.

Asked about the future of agriculture and rural America, Vilsack said it involves continued innovation. That means technology, which is expensive and thus skews toward large operations growing bulk commodities.

But he predicted there will be more options for people who want to start small and market differently, and that might happen outside of rural areas.

“I’ve had a number of entrepreneurs come in here to show me how, with LED lighting, they can substantially increase productivity of greens, which are in great demand,” Vilsack said. “And you can grow as much in a warehouse as on a hundred acres.”

Vilsack, who turned 66 last week, said he’s not sure what his own future holds. But he’s looking for a way to continue to work on agriculture policy.

He could become a voice prodding the new administration to pay attention to rural issues. He noted with dismay that his current position is shaping up to be among the last that President-elect Donald Trump fills, and lamented a lack of attention to the USDA from Trump’s transition team.

One thing he said he doesn’t do is big goodbyes. Instead, he evoked the image of his favorite childhood show — “The Lone Ranger” — and that hero’s habit of riding off into the sunset.

“That’s kind of how I feel about things,” he said. “You just do the job. And when it’s over, you ride out of town.”