WASHINGTON—The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved Tom Vilsack’s nomination to lead USDA, after a hearing in which Vilsack discussed climate change goals in farming, food insecurity, supply chain problems and inequalities faced by Black farmers.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who also ran the Agriculture Department for eight years during the Obama administration, acknowledged in the two-hour hearing that times have changed since then, as have expectations for USDA and its chief.
“The world and our nation are different today than when I served as Agriculture secretary in a previous administration,” he said in his opening remarks. “Today, the pandemic, racial justice and equity, and climate change must be our priorities.”
His nomination angered many civil rights leaders and Black farmers who said during his tenure at the agency he failed to provide economic relief to Black farmers or address racial discrimination. He sparked controversy during his time with the Obama administration when he wrongly fired Albany’s Shirley Sherrod based on a misleading video promoted by the late conservative writer Andrew Breitbart.
Vilsack pledged that he would “ensure all programming is equitable and work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects” Black and Indigenous people and people of color.
“I will build the most diverse team in the Department’s history, one that looks like America, and will extend that commitment across all USDA agencies and offices,” Vilsack said.
After he left the Obama administration in 2017, he served as the CEO and President of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Vilsack’s nomination has been backed by numerous large agricultural groups representing producers.
The next step is a vote by the full Senate, but there was no indication Tuesday when that would happen.
Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, questioned how Vilsack would work to ensure that Black and Indigenous farmers have access to agricultural credit programs to help build their family farms. She added that some Indigenous farmers in her state have found it difficult to have access to farm credit, which was found in a 2019 Government Accountability Office report.
“I think we need to take a much deeper dive than ever taken before to the USDA programs to identify what barriers actually in fact exist, in those programs,” Vilsack told Smith.
He said to study the inequalities that those farmers face, an equity task force should be created to look at those programs to identify any systemic racial barriers, and that USDA should partner with those communities to build trust.
“What we need is to make sure that we have people on those appeal boards at the county level and at the state level, that also represent that diversity, and when I was secretary before I exercised the power to enhance the diversification and diversity in many of those county committees,” he said.
Several senators also raised concerns about food insecurity, as millions of people have slipped into poverty due to the pandemic.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who is the incoming chair of the committee, raised concerns that food workers have inadequate protective equipment and that families are struggling to put food on the table and food banks are overwhelmed.
Iowa Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley pressed the nominee on how he would expand opportunities for use of biofuels, a key Iowa industry. Biofuels are a renewable source of energy that is made from organic matter and are considered more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. They still produce greenhouse gas emissions, but at a much lower rate than fossil fuels.
Ernst said she was concerned about Vilsack’s commitment to the biofuels industry for Iowa farmers because she felt the Obama administration did not go far enough in its support of the industry and instead favored electric vehicles.
Vilsack said that he drives a gas-fueled car, and not an electric vehicle, like most Americans.
“The reality is we’re going to need both,” Vilsack said. “We need an alternative fuel source in addition to our efforts on the electric (car). I don’t see why we can’t have both.”
Grassley introduced Vilsack to the committee and said he was pleased to see a fellow Iowan at the head of USDA. He praised Vilsack’s previous work under the Obama administration and said he was looking forward to working with him again.
“I know that he knows agriculture very well,” Grassley said.
Vilsack noted that his hearing took place on Groundhog Day, as he goes through the confirmation process to lead the agency for a second time.
“It’s not lost on me, ironically, that this is Groundhog Day, and I realize that I’m back again,” Vilsack said.