Tom Vilsack Is the Wrong Person To Lead the Department of Agriculture
Last week, President-elect Joe Biden confirmed rumors he would pick Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vilsack served in the same role for nearly the entirety of the Obama administration.
Biden said this week that he had to talk a reluctant Vilsack into returning to the job. Many wish Biden hadn’t done so; Vilsack is a divisive choice.
“I wanted someone new,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association and a Biden supporter and transition advisor.
Darvin Brantledge, a Missouri farmer who raises cattle and grows corn and who also supported Biden in the 2020 election, told Tulsa’s KOSU he’s “not impressed with Vilsack,” who he says promotes “more corporate control” of agriculture.
In the same KOSU piece, a farmer who supported Trump in the election was equally nonplussed by Biden’s selection, citing Vilsack’s support for stricter regulations during the Obama administration.
These and other critics are right.
Vilsack has a compelling personal story. An orphan who was adopted as an infant, Vilsack became a lawyer, then a mayor, and eventually served as Iowa’s governor before landing the top job at USDA when President Barack Obama first took office.
Under his leadership at USDA—as I detail in my stocking-stuffer book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us—farm subsidies grew to record amounts. (Those cash payments grew further still under the Trump administration.)
Among many other problems, those ballooning farm subsidies encouraged growers to overproduce, which led to needless waste and environmental damage. It also drove down prices paid to farmers.
“When he exited the USDA in early 2017,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week, “the U.S. farm economy was on the skids, with net farm income down 40% from a record high four years earlier because of successive bumper crops that swelled supplies and pushed down prices.”
Vilsack exited the USDA in the waning days of the Obama administration to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council, part of the government-created entity Dairy Management, which takes money from dairy farmers—via the absolutely awful mandatory dairy checkoff program—and spends it promoting the interests of America’s largest dairies.
While Dairy Management is the brains behind the long-running “Got Milk?” ad campaign, it also wastes money in more subtle ways. As I explained in a 2017 piece on the use of checkoff funds to encourage pizza chain Domino’s to add more cheese to its pizzas and similar pointless efforts to pad corporations’ pockets, “opponents of government waste, supporters of indie pizza joints that have to compete against giants like Domino’s, groups that oppose government promotion of animal products, and opponents of dietary saturated fat continue to fume over [Dairy Management’s] activities, secrecy, and very existence.”
Many critics are lining up to pan the choice of Vilsack.
Claire Kelloway, writing for The Intercept, called Biden’s choice of Vilsack for the USDA job a symbol of “everything that’s wrong with
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