A New Environment for Ag Policy
January 20, 2021
Following a turbulent 2020, which included a global pandemic, hard-fought presidential race and numerous congressional changeovers, the path of U.S. ag policy is likely headed for an adjustment. The “Sonny” sided leadership of USDA and its motto to “Do Right and Feed Everyone” will see the return of the long-tenure of Tom Vilsack. Add in new and retiring ag committee members in Congress, and the future of ag policy feels poised for a reset at the start of this new decade. ~By Clinton Griffiths, John Herath and Tyne Morgan
A Second Act
Tom Vilsack, who led USDA under former President Barack Obama, has a long relationship with President Joe Biden and served as a trusted adviser on rural issues during his campaign. Credit: Bob Nichols
As President Joe Biden unveils his picks for his leadership positions, a sense of déjà vu is setting in as Barack Obama administration officials are tapped for new positions in a Biden government.
The first is Tom Vilsack who was picked to return as USDA Secretary. The announcement was a surprise to analysts who speculated Vilsack would not want to give up his nearly million-dollar annual income at the U.S. Dairy Export Council to return to USDA’s $210,700 salary.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, had lobbied hard to be the first Black woman to head USDA, but she was tapped to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ag leaders welcomed Vilsack’s return to USDA. He worked with ag groups in the past and lobbied behind the scenes on behalf of the Renewable Fuels Standard and against provisions of EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, tweeted his approval for Vilsack: “He understands the importance of preserving the family farm, and the significance of the biofuels industry.” “Tom Vilsack believed in government actions based upon the best available science,” shared Chuck Conner, president and CEO of National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and former USDA Deputy Secretary. “That’s key in this climate debate.”
Vilsack’s Priorities and Action Items
Pandemic Recovery: “One of our first charges will be to contribute all we can as a department to aid in the pandemic response,” says U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “That means reviving rural communities and economies, addressing dire food shortages and getting workers and producers the relief they need to hang on and to come back stronger.”
Rural Revitalization: Vilsack wants to make landmark investments in rural America to create new opportunities. One strategy will be to adopt the 10-20-30 rule from Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. “That sets aside 10% of federal funding to communities where 20% of people have been caught beneath the poverty line for 30 years or more,” Vilsack explains.
Fighting Inequality: Vilsack says his job is to root out inequities and systemic racism in all USDA systems and programs. Climate Leadership: U.S. agriculture should lead the nation and the world on climate issues, Vilsack says: “American ag will reap the new good paying jobs and farm income that will come from that leadership.”
A Cool Reception For Gina McCarthy
Gina McCarthy was chosen by Biden to lead the incoming administration’s domestic climate agenda. Photo: EPA
While many farm groups have issued similar statements in support of Biden’s picks for EPA, U.S. Trade Representative and others, they have been completely silent about another pick: Gina McCarthy as the domestic climate adviser.
McCarthy served as EPA administrator from 2013 to 2017 and was the driving force behind the controversial Waters of the U.S. rule, which set the parameters for enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Former President Donald Trump’s EPA eventually withdrew the rule and submitted a replacement.
“She’s pretty aggressive. She likes the stick and the regulatory approach,” says Jim Wiesemeyer, Pro Farmer policy analyst.
It might be that stick that has kept ag interests silent about her return to Washington. However, McCarthy might have help pursuing climate policy. Vilsack says it will be a major focus at USDA and Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow confirms she will pursue a voluntary climate exchange as her top priority.
A Farewell to Key Ag Leaders
For the first time in decades, U.S. agriculture won’t have one of its biggest supporters roaming the halls of Congress. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has cast his last vote in Washington.
“As the only person ever to serve as the chair of both the House and Senate agriculture committees, Senator Pat Roberts has been an outstanding advocate for America’s farmers,” says Ann Veneman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
40 Years of Service Roberts, who served 16 years with the House and 24 in the Senate, was the first to write and pass a farm bill in both chambers of Congress. The 87 votes cast in favor of the 2018 farm bill set a record for bipartisan support.
“I am very proud I have had the privilege of being chairman of a committee that does get along, and we do get things done,” said Roberts during his final Senate speech.
As much as he has been a fixture in Washington, Roberts has earned his record in the farm fields, town halls and county fairs dotting the countryside.
“This job isn’t that tough if you go around and sit on the wagon tongue, talk with folks and listen to them,” he says.
Sen. Pat Roberts listens to his constituents in Kansas. Photo: Courtesy of Pat Roberts
Freedom to Farm During a 1996 listening session, Roberts heard what would become the marching orders for his biggest legislative accomplishment in agriculture: the Freedom to Farm Act.
Sen. Pat Roberts earned the nickname of “Farm Guy” during his 40 years in Washington, DC. Photo: Courtesy of Pat Roberts
“A Ford County wheat grower named Leon Torline stood up and said, ‘I’m damn tired of all of these government regulations. Why on earth don’t you just let me farm? Give me the freedom to farm! Give me crop insurance and some price protection and then get out of my way,’” Roberts recounts.
Roberts has been protecting farmer independence ever since.
“In my first conversation with President Trump, he said, ‘What can I do for you?’ I said, ‘Save and improve crop insurance.’ He said, ‘Well, what’s crop insurance?’”
That led to Roberts earning the nickname “Farm Guy.” “I thought well I can’t do any better than that,” he says.
Roberts leaves the nickname and an ever-expanding crop insurance program to his successors.
“What I remember most about the quick-wit Roberts is the yeoman work he did while chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee,” says Jim Wiesemeyer, Pro Farmer policy analyst. “When he got the position, he said, ‘I won’t be able to call you as much because I’m afraid I will tell you something I shouldn’t!’”
A U.S. Marine and former journalist, Roberts promotes straight talk and legislative compromise. It’s why he’ll have his name on a building at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan.
The Path Forward Roberts knows what agriculture needs to succeed in the future.
“If we could get more consistency and predictability, including trade policy, I think we’ll be in better shape,” Roberts says. “It’s a very exciting time in agriculture and if we can get stability, why it will be amazing what we’re able to do.”
Ag Committee Changes
As Congress works to shape the future of ag policy with the next farm bill, three of the four leaders of the previous farm bill (who have a combined 85 years of experience) will be missing:
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
“I think this next farm bill is going to be one of the most difficult to put together for that reason,” says Karla Thieman of the Russell Group.
Peterson, who served as House agriculture committee chairman, lost his bid to retain the 7th District House seat in Minnesota to the state’s former lieutenant governor, Michelle Fischbach.
“I’d like to thank the people of the 7th District for their support,” Peterson issued following the final tally. “Serving them in Washington, D.C., has been a great honor, and I respect their decision to move in a different direction.”
Peterson, a rare conservative Democrat, first won the seat in 1991. An accountant by training, he used that expertise to craft ag policy that penciled out. His leadership in Washington will be missed, says Jim Wiesemeyer, Pro Farmer policy analyst.
“The biggest scoop Collin gave me was when he told me Congress was talking about doubling the amount of corn-based ethanol mandate as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Wiesemeyer says. “That came to be and was quite a market-sensitive scoop.”
Wiesemeyer says Peterson has forgotten more than most people know when it comes to agricultural and ethanol policy.
The loss of key Washington leaders such as Collin Peterson (left) and Mike Conaway will have a big impact on future ag policy. Photo: House Agriculture Committee
Key Ag Leaders in Washington
Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., will be the first Black chairman of the House ag committee. He has served on the ag committee since 2003. He spent part of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm.
Rep. Glen Thompson, R-Pa., is the Republican Party ranking member on the House agriculture committee. He has served on the ag committee since 2009 and is a descendant of a long line of dairy farmers.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is the only remaining leader of the two ag committees. She will be as chairwoman of the ag committee, on which she’s served since 2000. She has helped craft four farm bills and has been a proponent of Michigan’s specialty growers.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is the Republican leader on the Senate ag committee. He joined the Senate in 2011. As a former cattle rancher, he advocates for Arkansas agriculture, which is the state’s largest industry.