USDA’s ‘regular guy’ Vilsack persists 7 years in job

Source: By Christopher Doering, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, January 25, 2016

WASHINGTON — From his second-floor office overlooking the National Mall in Washington,D.C., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks of his department’s accomplishments during the past year like a parent glowing over the success of his child.

As the former Iowa governor enters what is expected to be his last year leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 65-year old Vilsack is planning to focus his attention on issues including trade, water, school lunches and food labeling.

Vilsack, the last original member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, declined to say if he plans to stay — responding that he serves at the “pleasure of one guy.”

For now, there is no evidence Vilsack plans to leave before the end of the Obama administration, either to take another job or to campaign for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he has endorsed for president.

But as Vilsack nears the end of his USDA stint, the man who seemingly has an answer to everything agricultural-related pauses a long time before answering how his accomplishments at the USDA will transcend into his legacy.

“The true answer to that is I haven’t given that any thought. … That’s terrible,” he said in an interview, surrounded by agricultural-themed posters and paintings interspersed with memorabilia from his beloved hometown sports teams in Pittsburgh.

“One thing that I’ve heard people say back to me recently is that they really appreciate the fact that I’ve been a spokesperson for rural America and for agriculture, a strong spokesman, and reminding the rest of the country about the importance of this place.”

Vilsack, the fourth-longest serving agriculture secretary in U.S. history, has said he never thought about a future at USDA until November 2008, when he received a call from someone who considered him as a top candidate for the position.

‘Guy in the middle’

Born in Pittsburgh, he lived most of his life in Iowa — the country’s top corn, ethanol, egg and pork producer — and moved up the political ranks from mayor of Mount Pleasant to two-term governor.

Farm groups and lawmakers, even those from the other side of the aisle, describe the gray-haired Vilsack as knowledgeable about agriculture, approachable and willing to be a champion of farmers and ranchers in an administration that at times has been viewed as unfriendly toward them when it comes to topics such as ethanol and land rights.

One  of  his biggest flubs in office, though, was self-inflicted and not even tied to agriculture. In July 2010, Obama criticized him for rushing to judgment when he fired Shirley Sherrod, a USDA employee, over alleged racial allegations. When it turned out those claims were not true, Vilsack apologized and said he would have to live with the mistake.

While those who work with Vilsack have not always agreed with everything he has done, they find him likable and someone they can work with.

“When you look at these past seven years, everybody has been mad at him at least once, everybody has been happy with him at least once. He’s sort of been, if you will, a guy in the middle,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist.

“You want somebody who’s going to go out there and promote agriculture, but at the same time you want to be out there trying to challenge agriculture to address issues where we can do things a little bit better. He’s supposed to ruffle feathers.”

Hart said traditional row-crop and livestock farmers, long viewed as the symbol of agriculture, see Vilsack as having spent too much time on issues such as organic foods and specialty crops.

At the same time, environmentalists have wished that Vilsack would have gone further to force agricultural producers to be better stewards of the land they use, he said.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack announces his withdrawal from the 2007 presidental campaign at his headquarters in Des Moines, Friday, Feb. 23, 2007. To his right is his wife Christie and to his left is their son Doug.

Wally Taylor, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter, criticized Vilsack for being too friendly to industrial agriculture and big agribusiness companies such as Pioneer and Monsanto.

Instead, he said Vilsack should have done more to help protect the environment and encourage agriculture to play a bigger role in reducing nutrient runoff and soil erosion from farms — something Taylor believes producers are unwilling to do on a meaningful scale by themselves.

“He tends to support the industrial agriculture model instead of sustainable agriculture, and I think he sides too often with the big ag interests like the Farm Bureau and the big commodity and livestock organizations,” Taylor said. “That’s the thing with the industrial agricultural model, the environment is there to be ignored at best and taken advantage of at worst.”

‘Regular guy, important job’

During his time in office, Vilsack has benefited until recently from a favorable economic environment where high prices for corn, soybeans and other commodities have helped the nation’s agricultural producers.

While the farm economy has pulled back significantly from three years ago, when the industry posted record income topping $123 billion, agriculture for the most part remains on solid ground, although the prolonged downturn has started to squeeze some producers.

Hart and others said the strong farm economy has allowed Vilsack and the USDA to expand their reach into other areas such as promoting the purchase of locally grown goods that would be harder to do when the industry is struggling — a time when the focus would otherwise be placed on using the department’s considerable resources to help struggling farmers and ranchers.

“If things are going well, it’s hard to complain,” Hart said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has talked regularly with Vilsack about agricultural policy, and sometimes to iron out disagreements that he says so far have been easy to fix.

Conaway said Vilsack invited him, his wife and other top lawmakers involved in agriculture in Congress to his home one night. Work talk quickly shifted to discussions about their backgrounds and careers. On another occasion, Vilsack hosted a reception for members of the House Agriculture Committee at his office and shared stories about mementos in his office.

“You get a real sense that he’s just a regular guy with an important job,” Conaway said.

As agriculture has become increasingly intertwined with work by other departments and agencies in Washington, those in farming, ranching and ethanol production have increasingly looked to Vilsack to speak on their behalf — both on Capitol Hill and in closed-door Cabinet meetings in the White House.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuel Association, said Vilsack’s experience at USDA and willingness to forge close working relationships with his counterparts at the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have helped.

Ethanol supporter, risk-taker

Renewable fuel groups have grown concerned during the Obama administration about the EPA’s decision to require less ethanol to be mixed into the country’s motor fuel supply than what Congress mandated in a 2007 law.

While the EPA announced last November a level for 2016 well-below what Congress mandated, it was higher than what the agency had proposed earlier in the year.

“There is no doubt it would have been worse (for ethanol producers) if USDA wasn’t in the room and very, very actively engaging in that debate,” Shaw said. “Vilsack was that kind of factual rock in the middle of this swirling chaos. Secretary Vilsack’s credibility on those issues and his willingness to speak up often and bluntly, I think did wonders.”

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and a corn and soybean farmer in Milo, said Vilsack’s influence has extended to other areas such as the labeling debate surrounding foods containing genetically modified ingredients and the need for the United States to pursue trade deals to expand the global marketplace for producers.

One trade pact that would lift barriers for exporting U.S. meat, poultry, dairy and other goods to 11 Pacific Rim countries faces opposition from labor groups and some lawmakers who say it will cost U.S. workers jobs. Congress has not scheduled a vote on the agreement.

“He has somewhat defied some of his party’s positions in order to find a place where farmers and ranchers do better,” Hill said on the sidelines of a recent agricultural conference in Orlando. “To be effective and do the job he’s done, he’s had to take some risk, and that risk is not limiting him in his role.”

ISU’s Hart said one of the challenges for Vilsack in how his legacy will be defined will depend largely on whether the agricultural economy shows signs of rebounding before he leaves office.

“If he’s at the helm when we slide down the hole and it takes us quite a while to get out of that, then that could damage the legacy,” Hart said. “It’s typically the last few years that help define the legacy because that’s what people remember — the last thing you did.”

Vilsack said he’s especially proud of his efforts to help reduce unemployment in rural areas and improve the department’s position in civil rights — an area where the USDA had drawn criticism before he came to Washington.

“I would hope that people would see this time that I was a hardworking, successful secretary,” Vilsack said. “But that’s for everyone else to decide.”

Contact Christopher Doering at or reach him at Twitter: @cdoering

Longest-serving USDA secretaries

  1. James Wilson, March 6, 1897 to March 5, 1913, 16 years
  2. Ezra Taft Benson, Jan. 21, 1953 to Jan. 20, 1961, 8 years
  3. Orville Freeman, Jan. 21, 1961 to Jan. 20, 1969, 8 years
  4. Henry A. Wallace, March 4, 1933 to September 4, 1940, 7 years, 6 months
  5. Tom Vilsack, Jan. 21, 2009 to present (7 years)
  6. David Houston, March 6, 1913 to February 2, 1920, 6 years, 11 months