Reports say Vilsack to get nomination as agriculture secretary; Iowans from both parties like the prospect

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Tom Vilsack is set for another stint as U.S. secretary of agriculture.

News organizations in Washington, citing people familiar with the decision, reported Tuesday night that President-elect Joe Biden would select Vilsack for the post.

Vilsack, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, said in an interview with the Des Moines Register last week that he didn’t know if he was being considered for the job.

“I don’t think anybody knows,” Vilsack said. “It’s not like they put out a list saying, ‘Here are the people we’re thinking about.’ It’s not the way it works.”

Media outlets also had reported that Biden was considering U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. But on Tuesday afternoon, reports emerged that Fudge would be nominated for Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Iowa farm leaders like the idea of Vilsack leading the department again. But some warn he will face challenges unlike those he saw during his eight years in the job during the Obama administration.

If confirmed by the Senate, the Democrat will come to office at a time when U.S. farmers face low commodity prices, diminished trade and an ongoing decline in rural population, jobs and opportunities.

He will have the backing of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who served as Agriculture Committee chairman during Vilsack’s previous tenure.

“I liked what Vilsack did as the secretary of agriculture for eight years, and if he was in for another four years, it would be OK with me,” Grassley said Tuesday. “I would be glad, if he wants me to, to speak for him before the Agriculture Committee.”

“He certainly understands rural issues,” said Patty Judge, a Democrat who served as Iowa’s agriculture secretary during Vilsack’s tenure as governor. “And not just food production, but issues like broadband access, lack of affordable housing and the need for jobs.”

“Having an Iowan at the helm of USDA would be positive for our state’s agriculture community,” Mike Naig, Iowa’s current agriculture secretary, said in a statement. “Tom Vilsack would certainly be able to hit the ground running given his previous experience, and being a former governor, he understands the interaction between states and the federal government.

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Vilsack, who turns 70 on Sunday, said last week that putting together a Cabinet was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that must balance gender, race and geographic considerations.

Some national leaders have criticized Biden for failing to have enough diversity in his Cabinet selections thus far.

“You just don’t know until all the pieces are put together. Or at least enough pieces,” Vilsack said, adding that he was told he “would not be” Obama’s agriculture secretary, but then was asked a few weeks later to meet with the then-president-elect, who hired him. He ended up serving for eight years.

Most Iowans interviewed by the Register welcomed the idea of Vilsack returning to Washington, even if they didn’t always agree with the Obama administration’s policies.

“It would be pretty exciting,” said Monte Shaw, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “Not only is he an Iowan, but knows the biofuels industry. He’s been through the policy fights.”

Vilsack supports the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that requires ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable fuel to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Farmers fought with President Donald Trump’s administration over exemptions it provided the oil industry, waiving some refiners from blending biofuels.

Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of biofuels, and industry experts say the exemptions have destroyed demand for billions of gallons of ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol production uses half of Iowa’s annual corn crop.

Additionally, Shaw said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have greater freedom in setting renewable fuel levels in 2022, when guidelines from the 2007 law end. “If anyone is listening, I’d rather (Vilsack) head the EPA,” Shaw said.

Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, said Vilsack has been a strong advocate for trade. In last week’s interview, Vilsack noted that trade is tied to about 30% of U.S. farm revenue.

Leeds said he believes Vilsack agrees that China is guilty of “trade agreement abuses and misuses,” from blocking U.S. farmers from some markets to stealing intellectual property. The Trump administration levied tariffs against China because of those abuses. But Leeds said Vilsack, like Biden, thinks the solution needs to be “multilateral,” working with U.S. trade allies.

More about Tom Vilsack

Leeds said Vilsack has been a “moderating voice” when it comes to environmental issues, urging farmers to adopt conservation practices that can improve water and soil health while cutting carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Last summer, Vilsack said he sees “tremendous opportunity” around improved sustainability, especially for Iowa, given the vast scale of farming in the state, agriculture’s role in environmental challenges, and the difficulties growers face in making money with traditional farming techniques.

Sequestering carbon can boost soil health, crop yields and revenue, while it improves the health of local rivers, streams and lakes and adds wildlife habitat, experts say.

Vilsack said “climate-smart” farming systems could transform rural economies, sparking new technology that adds value to crops and producing agricultural byproducts that can be used to produce electricity, chemicals and other products that now come from oil.

Despite the praise for Vilsack, he has his critics. Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, told the Hill he objects to Vilsack’s current role as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“Since leaving the USDA, he has represented corporate dairy operations in promoting their exports,” the Hill quoted Hanson as saying. “He is not what the USDA needs to help make all of U.S. agriculture more sustainable and resilient in the time of climate change when bigger is better is not the answer.”

And NAACP President Derrick Johnson told Bloomberg News that Vilsack as agriculture secretary would be “highly concerning.” He cited the ouster during Vilsack’s previous tenure of the USDA’s Georgia state director of rural development, a Black woman, after a misleadingly edited video by a conservative blogger gave the impression she had withheld help from a white farmer.

Matt Russell, executive director of the faith-based climate group Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, said issues have shifted since Vilsack last led the department, and he would need to make adjustments.

“This cannot be a reboot of the Tom Vilsack USDA in the Obama administration,” said Russell, who hosted Biden, Vilsack and Vilsack’s wife, Christie, at his farm in central Iowa during the campaign.

“It’s really important that the next secretary of agriculture invest in the policies and the politics of bringing people together,” Russell said Tuesday. “And that means big farmers, small farmers, it means Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, young farmers. So that’s a huge challenge.”

Biden’s relationship with Vilsack goes back decades. He was an early supporter of Biden’s first campaign for president in 1988 while Vilsack was the mayor of Mount Pleasant. He endorsed Biden a year before the 2020 election and campaigned tirelessly for him during the caucus campaign.

Vilsack entered politics in large part because of tragedy, when the mayor of Mount Pleasant was gunned down at a City Council meeting in 1986. Vilsack, then a young lawyer, had grown up in Pittsburgh and moved with his wife, Christie, to her Iowa hometown. He was recruited to seek the mayor’s office, then served two terms in the Iowa Senate before being the first Democrat to win the governorship in 30 years.

After two terms, Vilsack ran a 10-week campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination before withdrawing and throwing his support to Hillary Clinton, even as Biden was among the field. Vilsack was a finalist for Clinton’s running mate that year.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8457