US Senate confirms Tom Vilsack as USDA secretary

The US Senate voted to confirm Tom Vilsack as head of the Department of Agriculture on 23 February, returning the former Iowa governor to the job he held under ex-President Barack Obama.
calendar icon 24 February 2021
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Reuters reports that the 100-member Senate approved Vilsack 92-7. He needed a simple majority in the Democratic-controlled chamber to be confirmed.

As secretary of the sprawling department, Vilsack will oversee about 100,000 employees responsible for food stamps, crop insurance, land conservation and other missions at a time US farmers are benefiting from high soybean and corn prices but hunger is on the rise throughout America.

Vilsack has said the White House wants to tap a pool of funds from the agency's Commodity Credit Corporation to support on-the-farm efforts to fight climate change, a policy priority for new President Joe Biden.

The Depression-era program of up to $30 billion in annual funding was tapped by the Trump administration to distribute billions of dollars in aid to cover farmers' lost sales due to trade wars, primarily with China.

Vilsack must also confront the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced restaurant demand for farm products and led to long lines at food banks.

"We have a lot of work to do as we overcome obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic," American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement after the vote.

Some slaughterhouses shut temporarily in spring 2020 due to outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers, pushing up meat prices and leading to shortages of certain products.

"We found that when one or two processing facilities shut down during COVID, it created havoc in the market," Vilsack said during a Senate committee hearing on 2 February. "We can't have that."

Groups like the National Black Farmers Association raised concerns about Vilsack's nomination, saying alleged discriminatory practices continued at USDA under his previous leadership.

Vilsack, who was Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007, said at the 2 February hearing that there can be no tolerance for discrimination.

Various farm industry groups welcomed Vilsack’s confirmation. Statements from the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) and National Farmers Union (NFU) highlighted Vilsack’s qualifications, expertise and their desire to tackle the challenges facing American agriculture.

NFU President Rob Larew said, “…there is no shortage of things [Secretary Vilsack has] to get done; most immediately, he must prioritise pandemic recovery. That means ensuring that all Americans have access to food, providing farmers of all types and sizes with the relief they need to stay in business, helping rural hospitals treat critically ill patients and distribute vaccines, and protecting workers across the food chain from COVID-19.

“But the pandemic is hardly the only problem beleaguering agriculture; the industry is also grappling with a rapidly changing climate, unchecked corporate power, persistent oversupply, institutional racism, an aging population, and insufficient local processing infrastructure. During his second stint as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack can’t let any of these issues fall by the wayside. We look forward to working with him towards lasting, meaningful reforms that will secure a bright and prosperous future for family farmers and their communities.”

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Source: Reuters

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