Agriculture Nominee Gets Warm Welcome at Senate Hearing

Looking to get his old job back, Tom Vilsack said during his confirmation hearing that environmental concerns present agricultural business opportunities.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who President Joe Biden chose to reprise that role, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., last December. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is on his way to bipartisan confirmation returning him to America’s top agricultural job. 

Vilsack, who served as former President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture for all eight years, went before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee for a confirmation hearing Tuesday. Despite the tough situation Vilsack faces if confirmed, the atmosphere was mostly chummy as senators lobbed questions at him.

President Joe Biden’s nominee for agriculture secretary repeatedly pointed to the opening of opportunities within the nation’s food and farm supply. With the president’s embrace of addressing climate change, Vilsack said he hoped to link environmental concerns with business opportunities to address them. 

“We need to create new market opportunities for farmers that will create jobs in rural places,” he said, pointing to the biofuel industry as well as cover crop systems which reinvigorate soil in between the harvest of traditional cash crops.  

He said he hoped the USDA under his leadership could create “incentives for farmers to expand” these outlets. 

“It’s one thing to ask them to use cover crop for soil health, it’s another thing to ask them to incur an additional expense,” he said.

The use of biofuels – ones that are derived from plant material or animal waste – was also a hot topic during the hearing, with Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asking Vilsack what he saw as the future of renewable energy on farms.  

“This industry has made great strides in becoming more environmentally friendly,” he said, citing a recent Harvard study which suggested the carbon footprint from biofuels is on the decline.

“Biofuels continue to play a role in reducing emissions and providing job opportunities across the country,” he added. “It’s not just consumer or farm transportation, it’s also jets and ships that will use this fuel.”

Vilsack’s nomination was hailed by members of the biofuel industry. Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper called the nominee an excellent choice, saying he had the ability to work with a “broad spectrum of interests.” 

“We are especially happy to have someone in the Biden administration who intimately understands the crucial role renewable fuels and agriculture can play in confronting climate change,” Cooper said in December when Vilsack’s nomination was first announced. 

In the wake of the food insecurity crisis the U.S. is facing on the back of the coronavirus pandemic, Vilsack pushed for more funding to support food banks along with efforts to link local farms to those food banks. He suggested any infrastructure funding should include storage and transport systems to help build on these ideas. 

He also stressed the need for more investment in U.S. food processing. 

“We have to have a stable food system and a key to that is stable food processing facilities,” he said, arguing the country is relying too heavily on just a handful of food producers.  

“There was a good start with the last round of Covid funding, but we need to do more,” he added. 

Noticeably absent from Tuesday’s hearing were questions about Vilsack’s tenure with the USDA under Obama and what some have called the “cosmetic” impacts he made on the lives of Black farmers despite promises to make things better for them. 

“Under Vilsack, USDA employees foreclosed on Black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints, many of which were never resolved,” investigators at The Counter wrote in a 2019 report. “At the same time, USDA staff threw out new complaints and misrepresented their frequency, while continuing to discriminate against farmers.”

Vilsack made some references to racial equality in a prepared statement he eventually deviated from during the hearing.

John Boyd, president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, has called on him to “expand Black farmer access to land and credit and reform USDA’s income support and insurance programs to end systemic discrimination” if he is confirmed.  

“He must create outreach programs to help Black farmers participate in these programs and lift the veil of secrecy that hides the true extent of racial discrimination at USDA,” Boyd said in a December statement. “I stand ready to work with Secretary Vilsack to meet these challenges – and to hold him accountable.”

Vilsack told The Washington Post he will make efforts to reconcile the concerns of Black farmers with what the federal agency allowed to happen in recent years.

“If confirmed, I will go to USDA with the understanding there is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to respond to the concerns and needs of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers,” he told the Post ahead of Tuesday’s hearing. 

Senator Tina Smith, D-Minn., got the closest to this issue with a line of questions about minority communities struggling to gain access to USDA programs. 

“We’ll put together an equity commission that will be charged with identifying if there is systemic racism within these programs and are there barriers, intentional or not, and what steps can be taken,” Vilsack said in response. “We will collect information and data to see if there is a problem and address the problem if we find it.” 

Concerns about Vilsack’s confirmation were limited, with Republican and Democratic senators alike confident about his likelihood of success. 

“I can’t think of a single quarrel I’ve had with Mr. Vilsack, and I know he knows the importance of maintaining the family farm,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “He knows it’s the foundation for success in American ag.” 

Vilsack’s confirmation vote in the full Senate is expected in the coming weeks. 

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