Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says addressing the COVID-19 pandemic remains top of mind as he returns to USDA, but he also will be addressing climate policy, workforce issues and other matters in the early days of his tenure.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, his first full day on the job, Vilsack offered no specifics on how he would pursue climate and conservation policy, including a timeline for setting up an ag carbon bank, but he said he would be working with Capitol Hill on those issues. 

“If there is congressional authority that we need or additional appropriations we need, we ought to be advocating for that. Over the course of the next several months, I’m sure that we will be doing a little bit of all of that,” he said.

“To the extent that we can create and support pilot projects, to the extent that we can focus on demonstrations and best practices, to the point where we can potentially establish something like a carbon bank, I think we should absolutely explore it,” Vilsack added. “And if there are resources available today that we have the availability and the ability to use, we ought to be looking at that.”

Addressing climate change – and finding ways to pay farmers for their carbon sequestration – is at the top of the list for many in farm policy, including Robert Bonnie, a key Vilsack adviser at USDA. Bonnie has recommended using USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. to establish a carbon bank, an idea that has been met with mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. Sen. John Boozman, the top Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, has expressed concern about using CCC — which also issues payments for existing commodity programs — as the fund for the program as well as making sure the program would benefit producers rather than third-party verifiers. 

Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Ag Chair David Scott, D-Ga., have both said addressing climate change will be a focus of their committee work; Scott convened a hearing on the subject Thursday.

Vilsack suggested USDA's initial work on climate-related projects would help inform development of a new farm bill due in 2023. Farm bill oversight hearings are expected to take place in the next two years.  

Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse West.

“It is important for us at USDA to do what we can with the resources we have as quickly as we can so we can determine what works and what doesn’t work,” Vilsack said. “I see this as an opportunity for us to inform, through our actions, the formulation of long-term policies that could advance our efforts on climate.”

Vilsack said he plans to meet with his climate team Friday to further discuss the subject and look at how the department plans to address President Joe Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions in American agriculture.

“That is not going to happen in a single administration, or probably in several administrations, but the work has to begin immediately,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack is currently working remotely from Iowa – where he was once the state’s governor – but could be in Washington as early as March, he said. He said he recently received his second shot of the coronavirus vaccine and is “getting up to speed on where things are in the department.”

He also announced new funding for distance learning and telemedicine grants and detailed the administration’s efforts to address food security during the pandemic.

 For more news, go to