When Tom Vilsack was Agriculture secretary just four years ago, he periodically brought up the need to tackle climate change. Now, it’s his go-to opener.
Farmers and ranchers have been steadily slammed by historic wildfires, floods and hurricanes since Vilsack left the department, and agriculture leaders have recently come around to the idea that farmers should play a central role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Vilsack’s first big projects as Agriculture secretary for his second time around will be sharply scaling up conservation efforts and exploring the creation of a carbon bank to help pay farmers to adopt climate-friendly farm practices, he said in an interview.
It’s a big leap from the smaller steps he took when he last held the office — and a sharp contrast from the Trump era, when Vilsack’s predecessor avoided even using the term “climate change” and cast doubt on the science.
Vilsack’s new focus shows just how much the discussion over global warming and its effects on the food supply has progressed in a few short years. It also demonstrates how the Biden administration sees the Agriculture Department as front and center in the government-wide climate response.
For his part, Vilsack is listening to progressives, who are pressing him to go big on tough issues including climate change, antitrust enforcement and racial equity.
“There’s an opportunity for farmers, if this is structured right, not only to do right by the environment, but also to do right by their bottom line,” Vilsack said. “So first and foremost is making sure that farmers understand that, and creating structures and systems and supports that play into that narrative.”
When President Joe Biden offered Vilsack, 70, the job — which he accepted after some prodding from his longtime friend — civil rights leaders and Black farmers publicly criticized the choice, arguing that he didn’t do enough to correct USDA’s long history of disrimination against farmers of color during his eight-year tenure during the Obama administration. Progressive groups also blasted his record, saying the extraordinary challenges facing the food system call for a fresh face at the department.
The “first step” Vilsack’s team should take is to make better use of current USDA conservation programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions like methane and store carbon in soil, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
“It’s obvious that Secretary Vilsack recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis,” he said.
The former Iowa governor knows he’s stepping into a department and a political landscape that’s fundamentally changed since he left in 2017. Vilsack said to lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing last month that he realizes “this is a different time, and I am a different person, and it is a different department.”
In an interview this week, the secretary said he sees an opening for more sweeping change this time around.
“The time has come for us to transform the food system in this country in an accelerated way,” Vilsack said.
He rattled off statistics to make his case: Nearly 90 percent of U.S. farmers now rely on off-farm income to survive as a result of unsustainable economics. Roughly 60 percent of Americans have at least one chronic disease. Forty percent have two or more.
The government spends more on diabetes treatment each year — $160 billion — than USDA’s annual budget, all while knowing that poor diet is a major driver of chronic disease.
“When you look at those statistics, you have to ask yourself: Can we continue to do what we’re doing? It suggests to me that we can’t,” he said.
The demands for major overhauls at USDA are loudest on racial equity in agriculture.
Vilsack’s early moves show he’s tuned in on those criticisms. Jewel Bronaugh, the administration’s nominee for the department’s No. 2 job, would be the first woman of color to serve as deputy secretary if confirmed. Vilsack recently named top advisers on antitrust and racial equity — both firsts for the department.
The secretary also worked behind the scenes with lawmakers to help craft the $5 billion in debt relief and other assistance for farmers of color in the coronavirus relief package H.R. 1319 (117) — provisions sponsored by Sen. Raphael Warnock. And he’s spending his free time reading books about civil rights — most recently, a profile of the late Rep. John Lewis and the story of Martin Luther King’s nine-day incarceration during the 1960 presidential election.
The Agriculture Department is establishing an equity commission to take the lead on addressing longstanding discrimination that has shut out producers of color from federal assistance that kept many farmers afloat over the years. Vilsack acknowledges that’s just the start.
“I think the key here is to understand the comprehensive nature of the work that needs to be done. It isn’t just one single program or one single mission area that needs to be examined. It’s all of USDA,” Vilsack said.
“Here’s the challenge: We’re not only dealing with the specific issues of discrimination, but we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of that discrimination over a period of time,” he added.
Black farm groups, in particular, are paying close attention to Vilsack’s racial equity policies.
“If Vilsack doesn’t come out of the gate running, I’m going to be knocking at the door,” John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said after Vilsack’s confirmation hearing last month. Boyd, who farms in Baskerville, Va., endorsed Biden ahead of the Virginia primary last year after sitting down with the former vice president to talk about the needs of Black farmers. “He said there would be change at USDA. That’s like music to your ears.”
Advocates for small- and medium-size farms and farmers of color worry that the Biden administration’s big plans on climate change could inadvertently worsen inequality by diverting more taxpayer dollars to the largest landowners in the U.S. — a group that is overwhelmingly white and has already received billions in direct payments in recent years.
“There is no doubt that as we structure and design this program, if we are to have a carbon bank, it has to work for farmers of all sizes,” Vilsack said. “It has to work for farmers in all parts of the country. It can’t just be designed for a particular subset of American agriculture if it’s to be successful.”
Vilsack has to navigate the powerful, conservative farm industry’s resistance to major policy changes, even though mandates are not on the table.
On Vilsack’s first full day in office, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall told lawmakers that he’s “not totally comfortable yet” with the concept of a USDA-backed carbon bank — something that’s seen as a potentially crucial piece of Vilsack’s climate agenda.
Another part of his challenge is reconstructing a sprawling department with a diminished workforce and morale that’s crumbled in recent years. Vilsack indicated he will allow for continued telework options — a shift from the Trump administration’s stance before the pandemic — and promised to spend time gathering input from career staff.
“What they’re probably going to tell me is, ‘There are a lot of vacancies that need to be filled — that I’ve been doing one or two or three jobs and it would be nice if I could just do my own job,’” he said. “So we need to be aggressive in terms of filling these vacancies, particularly in the science area.”
Ximena Bustillo contributed to this report.