Vilsack led the USDA for nearly the entire presidency of Barack Obama—during which Obama often lamented feeling alone in the fight for “forgotten” rural America. Less than a month after leaving the USDA, Vilsack became the top-paid executive at Dairy Management Inc., where he currently serves as president of the US Dairy Export Council. Dairy Management receives contributions from a checkoff program overseen by the USDA that requires dairy farmers to contribute 15 cents per every hundred pounds of milk sold. Although many agricultural sectors have these checkoff programs, ostensibly to help with industry research and marketing, Cary Spivak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the dairy program accounted for about 47 percent of all the nearly two dozen checkoff programs’ contributions in 2018, despite there being little improvement in the fortunes of dairy farmers. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of dairy farms licensed to sell milk fell by 15 percent. Meanwhile, Spivak writes, “top Dairy Management officials were paid more than their counterparts in other farm-related programs—and more than in similar-sized nonprofits in general.”
Vilsack’s move to the private sector wasn’t the first time he left small farmers feeling burned. During the 2008 election, Obama’s promise to break up Big Ag helped him win the Iowa caucuses, kickstarting his campaign, but after he tapped Vilsack to lead the USDA, that promise was never kept. This betrayal fueled many rural Americans’ distrust in politicians and strengthened the belief—widespread in the countryside in both red and blue states—that they’re forgotten inside the Beltway. It also helps to explain why, when speaking to pollsters, rural people repeatedly say they like progressive policies but not the Democratic Party. As The Nation’s own John Nichols pointed out in 2017, “What Democratic leaders fail to understand is that the problem isn’t based in rural America; it’s based in their own negligence and ignorance.”
When asked about anti-monopoly messaging during the 2020 primary, Vilsack insisted small farmers wouldn’t benefit from such policies and warned that threatening to break up Big Ag makes Iowans worry about losing their jobs—ignoring how many family farms have been put out of business by agricultural concentration and the decreasing incomes of those who remain as the control processors exert over prices keeps growing. On Iowa Starting Line’s podcast, he said such anti-corporate messaging only comes from “folks in think tanks in urban centers who have had very little experience, if any, with rural places.” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders took up the anti-monopoly message anyway—and both beat Biden, Vilsack’s candidate, in the Iowa caucuses by more than 10,000 votes, with Sanders nearly doubling Biden’s vote total.
Putting Vilsack back in charge at the USDA also ignores the advice of rural progressives and civil rights advocates. A source close to the president-elect told The Hill that Biden wanted someone prepared to hit the ground running and that “no one knows the department better than Tom Vilsack.” While institutional knowledge can be an asset, it can also lead to a defense of the status quo, which, for a Vilsack-led USDA, means continuing to prioritize corporate agribusiness by sacrificing everyday Americans.
It’s also important to note that focusing solely on farming policy fundamentally misunderstands the role of the USDA. Aside from agricultural policy, the department is also supposed to lead on nutrition, food scarcity, natural resources, forest services, and broader rural development. That last category is often seen as synonymous with farming, but as small farms go under, the small towns they support and depend on wither and die. While the contrast between the department’s farming policy and social services can appear to mirror the rural/urban divide, the reality is that rural America also needs these programs. Rural areas have higher rates of obesity than their urban counterparts, and of the 100 counties with the highest rates of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients—a USDA-run program—85 are rural. Rural schools continue to close, and a lack of health infrastructure has left rural areas with higher infant and maternal mortality rates. Without enough mental health resources to deal with the increasing economic pressure, farmers now have one of the highest suicide rates of all professions, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Representative Jim Clyburn, who arguably carried Biden to victory in South Carolina during the primaries, preferred the more progressive Representative Marcia Fudge for the job, as did most progressives and civil rights advocates. With her extensive anti-hunger and public nutrition work as well as her experience on the House Agriculture Committee, she could have made meaningful strides in building solidarity between rural and urban communities. Fudge also would have been the first Black woman to lead the USDA—a particularly meaningful distinction given the department’s long history of systemic racism and Vilsack’s distortion of his own record on civil rights. Despite her campaigning and substantial support for the USDA spot, Fudge was tapped to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development instead—a position often seen, as Fudge told Politico in November, as one of the few options for Black cabinet members.
After Vilsack’s nomination was announced, Independent Black Farmers founder Michael Stovall told Politico, “Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period. When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that. It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.” During Vilsack’s previous tenure at the USDA, the department was six times more likely to foreclose on a Black farmer as on a white one, even doing so when Black farmers had unresolved civil rights cases. Vilsack also notoriously fired Shirley Sherrod, the Black woman who led the department’s rural development efforts in Georgia, after a video of her speaking that was selectively edited by Andrew Breitbart. Vilsack apologized after seeing the full video and offered her her job back, but Sherrod declined. In an MSNBC interview after Vilsack’s nomination, Sherrod encouraged Vilsack to learn from his mistakes and do better for Black farmers, reminding him that Biden “would not be president-elect without Black people.”
Stovall’s work points to another failure to reevaluate Beltway assumptions: Even if the USDA were only meant to address rural issues, that doesn’t exclude the interests of people of color. Along with the rest of the country, rural areas are becoming increasingly diverse, with about 20 percent of residents being people of color. More specifically, animal slaughtering and poultry processing workers are nearly twice as likely to be nonwhite as workers in other industries, and more than twice as likely to be foreign born, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The working conditions at meatpacking plants are chronically neglected—undoubtedly a result of those demographics—and the Covid-19 pandemic has made them even worse. While the Trump administration is largely to blame for the failure to protect meat processing workers, it’s not a stretch to say Vilsack opened the door for him. As Tom Philpott pointed out in Mother Jones, Vilsack’s partial privatization of poultry processing oversight set the stage for the Trump administration to allow plants to operate processing lines at 175 birds per minute, up from 140. One analysis by the Food and Environment Reporting Network found that 40 percent of plants operating at the higher rate had Covid-19 outbreaks, compared to 14 percent of overall plants.
Arguably even more glaring is Vilsack’s willingness to prefer corporate interests over the environment, a particularly dangerous trend as the world draws closer to climate disaster. During his last USDA term, he disregarded the need for the examination of environmental impacts before greenlighting genetically modified crops, championing herbicide-resistant crops specifically and triggering what the National Resource Defense Council called an “arms race” between farmers and weeds. Since weeds develop their own resistance to herbicides like Roundup—which caused biotech giant Bayer to pay more than $10 billion this summer to settle claims that it causes cancer—new crops were engineered to resist herbicides that are even more toxic so that those herbicides could be used to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds, despite studies showing that such herbicides decrease biodiversity and are toxic to the water and soil on the farms where they’re used.
Vilsack is also a major supporter of ethanol from corn, despite increasing evidence that it isn’t as environmentally safe as once thought. As Claire Kelloway notes in The Intercept, “many environmentalists now believe the pollution, chemical use, and soil degradation associated with growing more corn outweighs any benefits of replacing oil with ethanol. Tom Philpott’s book ‘Perilous Bounty’ documents how the persistent overproduction of monoculture corn and soybeans will eventually ruin America’s farmland, especially in Vilsack’s home state of Iowa.” But Vilsack continues to promote ethanol as a way to create sustainable jobs and revitalize rural America because of how much agribusiness profits from the overproduction of corn. That, in essence, is Vilsack’s ever-profitable grift. He advertises himself as a lone advocate for “forgotten” rural America among D.C.’s establishment, while actually serving as a mouthpiece for corporate interests.