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Senate Ag Committee Advances Ag Secretary Nominee Tom Vilsack

On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack.

In her opening remarks, incoming Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) stated that, “Our first job is to consider the nomination of former Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is no stranger to the Senate confirmation process – or even the role he’s nominated for. Mr. Secretary, welcome and thank you for being here virtually today. As the former Agriculture Secretary during all eight years of the Obama Administration, you presided over the USDA with a steady hand and decisive leadership.”

Senate Agriculture Committee. To consider the following nomination: Thomas J. Vilsack, of Iowa, to be Secretary of Agriculture (February 2, 2021- C-SPAN).

Senator Stabenow added that, “The pandemic isn’t the only challenge we’re facing. The climate crisis poses the greatest threat to the long-term viability of our economy and food supply. While farmers and foresters are directly affected by climate change, they are also uniquely positioned to address it—and to benefit from new streams of income. Exploring these opportunities will be a major focus for this Committee and I look forward to working closely with you and the Biden Administration on it.”

In prepared remarks, Mr. Vilsack indicated that, “If confirmed, USDA will lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets in America that diversify rural economies; producing healthy, local and regional foods; investing in renewable energy; creating a thriving biobased manufacturing sector; embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.”

Daniel Moore reported on Tuesday at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette Online that, “Like Mr. Biden has done, Mr. Vilsack emphasized the economic value of environmental programs, including carbon sequestration, methane capture and reuse, and the recycling of agricultural waste. Those programs ‘can all create a more stable farm income and economy and can also support the jobs many farm families need,’ he said.

Agriculture ‘is probably the first and best way to begin getting some winds in this climate area,’ Mr. Vilsack said. ‘I think farmers are prepared for it, farmers are anxious to do it. If it’s voluntary, if it’s market-based, if it’s incentive-based, I think you will see farmers and ranchers and producers cooperate extensively.’

The Post-Gazette article noted that, “Mr. Vilsack said he would promote open markets abroad, in part by pressing the Biden administration to negotiate new free-trade agreements to keep American farmers globally competitive.”

Tuesday’s article also indicated that, “Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said farming should ‘not be considered the problem’ when it comes to climate change and urged Mr. Vilsack to push back against any moves from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose ‘heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all regulations’ that mandate specific farming practices.”

Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal writers Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman reported on Tuesday that, “The USDA, [Mr. Vilsack] said, could provide incentives for farmers to reduce tillage of soil that can release carbon into the atmosphere, and keep vegetation growing on fields nearly year-round to withdraw more carbon from the atmosphere. Agriculture companies, including Bayer AG , Nutrien Ltd. and Indigo Ag Inc., are developing platforms that allow farms to register and sell carbon credits generated by such practices.

To fund those efforts, Mr. Vilsack said he would seek to use a Depression-era program called the Commodity Credit Corp. The CCC, which permits borrowing of as much as $30 billion from the Treasury to finance its activities, has long been used to fund farm programs, typically authorized through the farm bill passed by Congress around every five years. Congress had restricted use of the CCC during Mr. Vilsack’s previous tenure, but those restrictions were lifted during the Trump administration, helping then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue make billions of dollars of payments to farmers to help cushion the blow from trade disputes and the coronavirus pandemic.”

And Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning reported Tuesday that, “Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack promised at his confirmation hearing Tuesday to ‘fully, deeply and completely’ root out discrimination against black and minority farmers, addressing long-standing complaints of inequitable access to loans and other assistance provided by the cabinet department.”

“Vilsack’s pledge responded to complaints from some black farm advocates that he wasn’t aggressive enough in his prior tenure at the USDA in dealing with the department’s history of racial discrimination,” the Bloomberg article said.

Donnelle Eller reported on Tuesday at The Des Moines Register Online that, “Fielding questions about climate change, biofuels and racial inequities, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack won approval from the Senate agriculture committee Tuesday for a second tour as U.S. agriculture secretary.

“His nomination now will go to the full Senate, where he’s expected to be confirmed by the Democrats who control the chamber as well as some Republicans. They include Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who introduced Vilsack at the committee hearing.”

Ms. Eller stated that, “U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, asked Vilsack if he would support ethanol and biodiesel production as Biden seeks to shift the nation to electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol.”

“‘There’s an opportunity to advance both,’ he said. ‘The reality is we’re going to need biofuels and the biofuels industry in the foreseeable future. As we educate people about the environmental benefits of biofuels, we’ll have an opportunity to expand use’ of biofuels, particularly within the marine and aviation industries.”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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