Originally printed in the January 2021 issue of Produce Business.
So we have a new President, the Democrats control both the House and, by virtue of the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote, the Senate. The “new” Secretary of Agriculture will be Tom Vilsack, filling a role he had filled in the Obama administration.
Tom Vilsack is an interesting choice. He is the only cabinet secretary who served two full terms under President Obama, and it is actually quite rare for people to return to the same cabinet position in another administration. He is also an industry person. After serving in the Obama administration, he went to work as president and chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and a vice president of its umbrella organization, Dairy Management.
Many have had concerns that Joe Biden has become more left-wing since his time in the Senate. This might be true, and it is certainly true that the party has moved in that direction and, of course, that matters. Partly because one of the most consequential choices of a President are the thousands of lower level appointees. These are mostly drawn from younger party activists, and they have enormous impact. What decisions get to the top, what is prioritized, what is left to sit on the side… these are often matters determined by staffers, not the President or even the Secretary at the cabinet level.
Vilsack was popular with the agriculture industry, and his appointment has reassured the industry. Since the agricultural industry is not a natural ally of the Democratic party, President Biden was shrewd to make the appointment. It has not, however gone over well with the more progressive wing of his party.
Dylan Matthews wrote an article in VOX explaining the reaction of many party activists:
“You can divide concerns over Vilsack into four broad categories. Civil rights groups are angry over what they see as his failure to adequately root out discrimination against Black farmers, and for his firing of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod in 2009. Animal advocates are concerned he did not do enough to improve living standards for farmed animals. And farmworker and anti-monopoly advocates are disappointed by his failure to fight monopolistic practices among chicken growers despite pledges to do so, and for a weak record on worker safety.”
Some of the concern on the left about Vilsack’s appointment is a disappointment that President Biden appointed Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, an area in which she has no reputation, as opposed to Agriculture, where she has been outspoken. Interestingly, just a few days before her appointment to HUD, Representative Fudge, who is black, lamented what she saw as the pigeon-holing of black people in the cabinet: “As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in,” she said. “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the black person in Labor or HUD.’”
The Department of Agriculture, in the modern day, is the result of a kind of Faustian bargain. On the one hand, you have production agriculture and, on the other, the recipients of food stamps.
There are lots of places in the government where recipients of food stamps are represented: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and more. President Biden was shrewd enough to realize that farmers and the broader ag industry really have only the Ag Department, so to turn the department over to one not perceived to be deeply concerned with farmers and production agriculture would alienate many who could come to support, or at least not actively oppose, the Biden administration.
The problem, though, is two-fold: First, the produce industry is not a big-program crop, like wheat or grain, and doesn’t receive the kind of subsidies that the big grain crops do – though, in recent years, it has been supported by programs like the farmers-to-families Food Box Program. Second, the prosperity of agriculture is not likely to be independent of the prosperity of the nation. So farmers, like others in America, have to look at broader policies than just whether ag-specific policies are favorable.
Interestingly enough, Representative Fudge may point to a bigger problem for America. She has won election in her congressional district eight times. She actually won her initial special election running unopposed with just 8,597 people voting for her. Since then, she has won by typically getting about 80% of the vote in her district, partly because it is a black majority district, and no Republican has a chance of winning.
But the whole state of Ohio points to a broader issue. In the recent election, the 1st district of Ohio was somewhat close, with the Republican getting 51.8% of the votes. In most of the rest of the state, the winners, whether Republican or Democratic, won typically with large majorities.
What it means is that the congressional districts have been so divided that only a few are actual contests between the parties. Whoever you voted for, if you love America, you have to wish Joe Biden well. But if you love America, you also have to hope that we will find a way to work out our differences and recognize that many things in our politics are encouraging extremism on both sides. That is not likely to help the produce industry or our country.