Joe Biden's decision to nominate Tom Vilsack to run the Agriculture Department for a second time will give Biden a policy veteran who shares his passion for addressing climate change and already has relationships with critical lawmakers and farm groups. 

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, served as agriculture secretary for all eight years of President Barack Obama’s administration before taking a $1 million-a-year post as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, the industry’s export development arm. 

The Biden transition team on Thursday officially announced Biden's intent to nominate Vilsack for USDA.

Vilsack helped the Biden campaign develop a climate plan designed to appeal to rural voters by promising payments to farmers for climate-friendly practices. 

Vilsack was an early advocate for market mechanisms as well as conservation programs to encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as curb water pollutions. He also promoted renewable energy and biofuels, at one point taking advantage of USDA’s broad spending authority under the Commodity Credit Corp. to subsidize ethanol blender pumps. 

He battled with congressional Republicans on some issues, including regulation of livestock and poultry markets, but he also maintained good relationships with the Hill and played a key role in shaping a compromise over dairy policy in the 2014 farm bill. 

Vilsack also played a critical role in the congressional debate over GMO labeling by coming out early in support of relying on smartphone, QR codes to provide the information to consumers. A law that was eventually enacted in 2016 to nullify state GMO labeling requirements largely embraced Vilsack's approach.

“Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “He believes in a ‘big tent’ philosophy that supports all types of production and understands the importance of respecting farmers and ranchers as partners worthy of support in the race to achieve sustainability goals.”

Duvall said Vilsack “earned a reputation for rising above partisanship to serve farmers and ranchers and I’m confident he’ll continue to do so." 

Vilsack’s pragmatic approach and knowledge of the Hill and of farm groups will be critical to the Biden administration’s efforts on climate policy and other issues, said Bruce Knight, a USDA undersecretary for natural resources during the George W. Bush administration who now runs a consulting business on environmental issues. 

Knight credits Vilsack with convincing the dairy industry to commit to a goal, announced earlier this year, to become net zero in carbon emissions by 2050. 

“You see the tireless work he did as secretary of agriculture as continuing in his current role (at USDEC), and I see him bridging very successfully back into the role as secretary,” Knight said. 

Ryan Bernstein, a former aide to North Dakota Republican and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Hoeven, describes Vilsack as an “agriculture traditionalist.” 

“He will likely receive swift confirmation in the Senate but will face challenges from the more progressive wing of his party,” said Bernstein, a senior policy adviser for the firm McGuireWoods. 

“Given his prior role at USDA and hailing from a traditional farm state like Iowa, look for Vilsack and the Administration to shift the Department’s goals and policy objectives to alleviate and address many of the concerns of progressives including climate change, broadband access, renewable energy, and hunger.”

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Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, said Vilsack “has the necessary qualifications and experience to steer the agency through these turbulent times. 

“He must use his impressive set of skills to implement and enforce rules that protect farmers from anticompetitive practices, enact meaningful structural reforms that balance supply with demand, restore competition to agricultural markets, strengthen local and regional food systems, advance racial equity in agriculture, and mitigate the threat of climate change.”

Many progressives opposed Vilsack’s selection, arguing that he was too close to agribusiness. There also is still anger over the forced resignation in 2010 of Shirley Sherrod, USDA’s state rural development director for Georgia. They argued instead for picking Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who has few ties to production agriculture aside from her time as a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Vilsack “is the exact opposite of what an administration focused on ‘building back better’ needs,” said Natalie Mebane of the progressive group 

“In order to ensure a livable future, we need leadership that will fight for struggling family farmers, sustainable farming, and national food security, not corporate agriculture giants.”

Vilsack’s nomination by Obama in 2009 faced similar criticism because of his record as governor and strong support for agricultural technology, including genetically engineered crops.

Vilsack pushed out Sherrod after a conservative website posted an edited video of Sherrod, who is Black, making what appeared at first to be racist remarks to an NAACP group. Her words were later shown to have been taken out of context, and Vilsack apologized. 

During a 2016 interview with Agri-Pulse, Vilsack said the Sherrod firing was easily his worst day as secretary. She “was unfairly and unjustly berated in the media for something that was false news, fake news if you will, and the difficulties surrounding her circumstance. But we tried to make something positive out of that very difficult experience,” he said, citing an initiative to focus resources on low-income areas. 

Vilsack credits Biden for his decision to initially get into politics by running for mayor of a small Iowa town. 

He said he was “inspired by then-Sen. Biden who was running for president who said, ’The penalty for not getting involved is that people less qualified than you end up governing you,’ I decided to give it a shot.”

The United Fresh Produce Association and Organic Trade Association also were among groups welcoming the news that Vilsack would be nominated. 

According to OTA, Vilsack "oversaw a period of unprecedented growth for organic farmers and businesses. He knows the importance of clear and consistent organic standards, and the responsibility of the USDA to support the unique public-private partnership that has made the organic sector successful."

Tom Stenzel, CEO of United Fresh, said of Vilsack, "Under his steady leadership we worked together to further the gains of the industry and broaden access to fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly for children. There is no shortage of issues to work on over the next four years – from trade to climate change."

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