WASHINGTON – Shortly after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. defeated President Trump last month, Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary and one of Mr. Biden’s first backers, received an exasperated call from a former assistant. Despite the elation over Mr. Biden’s victory, Democrats were once again resoundingly defeated in rural America.
“It’s not an overnight problem to be solved,” said Vilsack, according to his former deputy chief of staff Anne McMillan, who recounted the conversation. “It’s a long-term investment in understanding, appreciating and respecting rural America.”
This month, Mr Biden gave Mr Vilsack the responsibility for the task, urging him to return to the post of agriculture secretary he held for eight years in the Obama administration and making him, the chief envoy of the Biden administration to American farmers. But for a candidate with extensive experience, the retaliation against Mr Vilsack has been fierce, exposing divisions within the Democratic Party and resistance to simmering corporate influence among progressives.
If confirmed, Mr. Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, will take over as head of the Department of Agriculture at a time when American farmers have been battered by Mr. Trump’s trade wars and the effects of the pandemic. coronavirus.
Small farmers in particular have been hit hard, and farm bankruptcies have escalated in recent years, even with record federal support. Family dairy farmers faced a particularly difficult time, with prices falling due to an oversupply of milk. In Wisconsin, half of the herds have gone extinct in the past 15 years.
Mr Vilsack faces a tall order, with progressive and environmental groups warning he is too friendly with big industrial agriculture companies. In addition, rural farmers, who voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, fear that more regulations are in store under a Democratic administration.
Agricultural states have been a bastion for Republicans for the past decade and – despite frustration with Mr Trump among farmers over his trade policies – the president has consistently dominated in heavily rural areas in the 2020 election. , losing some farm states like Wisconsin due to the strength of Mr. Biden’s support in cities and suburbs.
Eager to make inroads into rural America, some Democrats fear Mr. Vilsack may not be the ideal ambassador. Critics of Mr Vilsack, who recently made $ 1 million a year as a lobbyist for the dairy industry, fear he favors the big industry over independent farmers and does not do enough to ensure safety workers.
Environmental and agricultural policy groups ridiculed him for being too comfortable with ‘Big Ag’, pointing to the rapid consolidation of the agricultural sector that occurred under his leadership when companies such as Monsanto and Bayer merged. . Food safety and labor advocates have also criticized his decision as secretary to allow a significant increase in the speed of slaughter lines in poultry factories, which may increase the risk of injury to workers, as well as an overhaul of the chicken inspection process to allow meat packing employees to perform some of the functions previously performed by government inspectors.
“If the past is a prologue, we are very concerned that it will continue to bid for the industry,” said Zach Corrigan, senior lawyer at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and consumer watchdog group. environment, which opposes the appointment of Mr. Vilsack.
“I think it will bow under pressure from the farm lobby, the subsidy lobby and big farm,” said Ken Cook, chairman of the environmental task force, a non-partisan organization that criticizes industrial agriculture. “I really feel like we needed new leadership there for a number of reasons.”
While many farm groups such as the National Farmers Union and Feeding America have expressed support for his appointment, some farmers fear that the Biden administration may announce new and heavy regulations.
“Probably more rules instead of fewer rules,” said John Heisdorffer Jr., a soybean grower from Iowa and former president of the American Soybean Association. “In the farming community, it seems we are ruled to death.”
Mr Vilsack has been particularly criticized for the dwindling fortunes of black farmers, who have long complained of discrimination in access to land and credit. He was also at the center of a racial storm under the Obama administration. In 2010, he hastily fired Shirley Sherrod, a black agriculture department official, after a conservative blogger posted a deceptive video clip that appeared to show her admitting her dislike of a white farmer. He then apologized and tried to rehire her.
Mr. Vilsack joins the Department of Agriculture in a very different climate from his eight years under Mr. Obama. The pandemic has focused on the struggles and dangers of workers in meat packing plants. Thousands of workers have fallen ill with the coronavirus after many factories failed to take basic precautions to protect them.
At the end of April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of issuing an executive order that effectively required meat packing plants to remain open even as cases of the virus increased. The administration claimed the move was aimed at protecting the country’s meat supply, which the industry said had been put at risk by plant closures. So far, however, there has been no evidence of a widespread shortage.
Given the wide latitude and support the meat industry enjoys under Mr. Trump, union leaders say Mr. Vilsack needs to take a more active role in protecting meat packaging workers.
“Due to the pandemic experience, the expectations for the Agriculture Secretary are different from those during Tom Vilsack’s previous service. Greater priority must be given to the safety and needs of the workers who produce our food supply and all Americans facing food insecurity, ”said Stuart Appelbaum, president of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, who represents poultry. workers in factories in the South.
During his first stint as secretary, Mr Vilsack disappointed advocates of small farmers and consumers who hoped he would address the consolidation of the agriculture and meat packaging industries, in which a few large companies control everything from seeds to slaughterhouses.
At the start of the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack promised to tackle the struggles of smallholder farming and help revive the wider rural economy.
“The central question is: are farmers and ranchers in this country currently receiving their fair share?” Mr. Vilsack spoke to an audience of farmers and agricultural experts in Iowa in 2010.
Throughout this year, Mr. Vilsack has organized a sort of listening tour, making stops in Normal, Alabama to discuss the poultry industry and Fort Collins, Colo. To talk about beef. . He was joined in this effort by then Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his senior antitrust official Christine Varney, raising the specter that Mr. Obama was serious about mastering large-scale agriculture and the meat industry.
At the time, Charles E. Grassley, a fellow Iowan and a powerful Republican senator, praised Mr Vilsack’s efforts, saying he had never seen this level of cooperation between the USDA and the Department of Justice, which was “absolutely necessary” to deal with consolidation. problem.
In the end, Mr. Vilsack and Mr. Obama’s Justice Department did not launch an antitrust effort. “There was nothing,” Mr. Corrigan said. “He shriveled up and left.”
Mr. Grassley expressed his support for the appointment of Mr. Vilsack.
The pandemic has also revealed, in new ways, how industry consolidation can make the country’s food supply vulnerable to disruption. The closure of just a few slaughterhouses, even for a few weeks in April, reduced pork production by 5 percent, leading to massacres and the waste of thousands of pigs that could not be processed.
Still, dismantling the big meat packers is unlikely to be on Mr Vilsack’s priority list.
“The priority over the next few years will be to get the economy back on its feet,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents thousands of meat packers.
Since leaving the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack has served as Managing Director of the US Dairy Export Council, a lobbying group. In an interview with the Iowa Starting Line podcast in April 2019, Mr. Vilsack made it clear his opposition to policies promoted by other Democratic presidential candidates that would shatter agricultural conglomerates.
“There are a significant number of people hired and employed by these companies here in Iowa,” Mr. Vilsack said. “You basically say to these people, ‘You might be out of work.’ This is not a winning message for me. “
Mr Vilsack said such ideas usually came from experts in “urban center think tanks” who had little experience with rural areas and rural populations. He said smallholder farmers would benefit from policies that lower their costs and give them greater control over their ability to set prices and connect directly with buyers.
Mr Vilsack is expected to be a stark contrast to Mr Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has received praise from some farmers for providing them with subsidies but has been criticized within the ministry for excluding career staff and politicizing economic research. Last year, Perdue angered many of his in-house economists when he decided to move the agency’s agricultural research unit from Washington to Kansas City, causing a wave of departures and blocking its works.
For those who have worked with Mr. Vilsack, the idea that he is only an ally of industrial agriculture is unfair. Ms McMillan, the former deputy chief of staff, said her former boss was still aware of the plight of small farmers, but he also had to look after the industry in general.
“Her job required her to advance rural America and the agriculture industry and feed people,” she said. “You can’t not engage with the whole spectrum.”