Big Ag must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when President-elect Joe Biden tapped Tom Vilsack to be secretary of USDA. For Big Ag, Vilsack is like your grandfather's favorite slippers – comfortable, cuddly, warm and dependable.
Former Iowa Governor Vilsack served eight years as USDA chief under Barack Obama with Biden as VP. Biden could have selected Democrat progressive hopeful Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge who would have possibly bridged the gulf between rural and urban communities and done something about USDA's long history of racial discrimination.
Instead, the nation gets Vilsack and his long, long, long record of toady-in-chief for corporate agricultural interests. Vilsack was all talk and no action when it came to representing small farms in his first go-round with USDA.
Shortly after taking the reins at USDA Vilsack held a series of agricultural hearings around the nation where farmers detailed stories how they have been used and abused by meat packers including Tyson and Smithfield and seed mega-company Monsanto. The hearings resulted in promises to update the 1921 Packers and Stockyard Act to provide relief from all the corporate abuses.
But instead of finalizing the rules Vilsack buckled under pressure from Big Ag and farm state Congress members. Vilsack had the power to put the rules in place without Congressional approval but shoved them into his pocket and mostly forgot about them.
Here's another huge Vilsack red flag for those hoping for reform at USDA. It was USDA under Vilsack that proposed cranking up poultry inspections from 140 birds a minute to 175 while at the same time reducing some federal inspectors in favor of Big Meat self-inspecting on the slaughter lines. Although Vilsack wasn't successful, his efforts provided the seeds for the Trump White House to cater to poultry companies granting waivers for faster meat processing line speeds.
And where does Vilsack stand on, say, dairy? Vilsack comes back to USDA after serving as chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council which is responsible for being the mouthpiece of corporate dairy interests.
Beginning to get the picture?
Vilsack's entire career has been catering to the desires and whims of Big Ag. And this is the guy who will tackle pressing issues at USDA including leading an effort to limit climate change, call out Big Ag when it acts unethically or breaks laws (dicamba anyone?), will right racial wrongs, and actually stand up for family farmers battered by the trade war with China and recent years of lower commodity prices. This guy???
Big Ag must be licking its chops, viewing Vilsack as some sort of malleable Gumby.
But 2021 is a world away from when Vilsack left Washington D.C. four years ago. Covid-19 has highlighted the abuses and struggles of the nation's meat packing plant workers. And then there's the ten-ton elephant of climate change. The Obama White House put new regulations on transportation and energy but under Vilsack's leadership had blinders on when it came to reining in carbon dioxide and methane emissions in agriculture. If anything, Vilsack offered up excuses for why Big Ag isn't part of the climate change solution.
That simply won't cut it anymore. Put Vilsack on a short leash. A very short leash.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.