WASHINGTON – Shortly after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. Defeated President Trump last month, Tom Vilsack, the former agricultural secretary and one of Mr Biden's early donors, received an annoyed phone call from a former assistant. Despite the elation over Mr. Biden's victory, the Democrats were again defeated with a massive defeat in rural America.
"It's not an overnight problem to be resolved," said Mr. Vilsack, according to his former deputy chief of staff, Anne McMillan, who narrated the conversation. "It's a long-term investment in understanding, appreciating and respecting rural America."
This month, Mr. Biden put Mr. Vilsack in charge of that role, calling on him to re-assume the role of agricultural secretary he held for eight years in the Obama administration and make him the government's chief emissary. van Biden for American farmers. But for a nominee with extensive experience, the backlash against Mr. Vilsack has been fierce, revealing divisions within the Democratic Party and backlash against corporate influence among progressives.
If confirmed, Mr. Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, will take over again at the helm of the agriculture department at a time when U.S. farmers have been battered by Mr. Trump's trade wars and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Smaller farmers, in particular, have been hit hard, and bankruptcies have increased in recent years, even with record amounts of federal aid. Family-owned dairy producers have been going through a particularly difficult period, with prices falling due to an oversupply of milk. In Wisconsin, half of the herds have disappeared in the past 15 years.
Mr. Vilsack faces a major challenge, with progressive and environmental groups warning that he is too friendly with large industrial farms. In addition, rural farmers, who have voted overwhelmingly for Mr Trump, are wary that more rules are in the pipeline under democratic rule.
Peasant states have been a stronghold for Republicans for the past decade and – despite Mr Trump's frustration with farmers over his trade policy – the president still dominated in heavily rural areas in the 2020 election, losing a number of farm states such as Wisconsin to the power. of Mr. Biden's support in cities and suburbs.
Some Democrats, eager to make their way to rural America, fear that Mr. Vilsack is not the ideal ambassador. Critics of Mr. Vilsack, that recently made $ 1 million a year as a dairy industry lobbyist, fears he will favor big industry over independent farmers and not do enough to ensure worker safety.
Environmental and agricultural policy groups have ridiculed him for being too sociable with & # 39; Big Ag & # 39 ;, noting the rapid consolidation in the agricultural sector that took place under his supervision, as companies like Monsanto and Bayer merged. Food safety advocates and workers also criticized his decision as secretary to allow a significant increase in slaughter line speed in poultry factories, which may increase the risk of injury to workers, along with a revamp of the chicken inspection process to meat packers enable what to do. of the tasks previously performed by government inspectors.
“If the past is a prologue, we have great concerns that he will continue to serve the industry,” said Zach Corrigan, a senior staff attorney at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watchdog group, who opposes the Mr. Vilsack.
"I think he will fold under pressure from the farming lobby, the subsidy lobby and big agriculture," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an impartial organization critical of industrial agriculture. "I really feel that we needed new leadership there on a number of grounds."
While many farmer groups like the National Farmers Union and Feeding America have expressed support for his nomination, with some farmers wary that the Biden administration could announce new and tough regulations.
"Probably more rules instead of fewer rules," said John Heisdorffer Jr., an Iowa soy farmer and former president of the American Soybean Association. "In the farming community it looks like we are being put to death."
Mr. Vilsack has been particularly critical of the declining fortunes of black farmers, who have long complained of discrimination when it comes to access to land and credit. He was also at the center of a racial firestorm during the Obama administration. In 2010, he hastily fired Shirley Sherrod, a Black Agriculture Department official, after a conservative blogger released a misleading video clip showing her admission of dislike for a white farmer. He later apologized and tried to recruit her.
Mr. Vilsack returns to the Department of Agriculture in a very different climate from his eight years under Obama. The pandemic has paid close attention to the struggles and dangers of employees of meat packaging companies. Thousands of workers fell ill with the coronavirus after many factories failed to take basic precautions to protect them.
In late April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of issuing an executive order that effectively forced meat packing plants to remain open even when there were virus cases. The government claimed the move was to protect the country's meat supply, which the industry said had been endangered by factory closures. However, so far there is no evidence of widespread shortages.
Given the wide leeway and support the meat industry enjoyed under Mr. Trump, union leaders say Mr. Vilsack should take a more active role in protecting meat packers.
"Because of the experience of the pandemic, there are different expectations for the Secretary of Agriculture than during Tom Vilsack's previous service. Greater priority must be given to the safety and needs of the workers who produce our food supply, as well as all those Americans. dealing with food insecurity, ”said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents poultry workers at factories in the South.
In his first stint as secretary, Mr. Vilsack disappoints smallholder farmers and consumers who hoped he would tackle the consolidation of the agricultural and meat packaging industries, in which a few large companies control everything from seeds to slaughterhouses.
Early in the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack pledged to tackle the struggles of smaller farms and help improve the wider rural economy.
"The central question is: are farmers and ranchers in this country getting a fair shake right now?" Mr. Vilsack told an audience of farmers and agricultural experts in Iowa in 2010.
All year round, Mr. Vilsack held a kind of listening tour, stopped in Normal, Ala., to discuss the poultry industry and Fort Collins, Colo., to talk about beef. He was joined in this effort by then Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and its top anti-trust official, Christine Varney, who haunted the specter that Obama was seriously engaged in curbing big agriculture and the meat industry.
At the time, Charles E. Grassley, a fellow Iowan and powerful Republican senator, praised Mr. Vilsack's efforts and said he had never seen such a partnership between the U.S.D.A. and the Department of Justice, which was "badly needed" to address the consolidation issue.
Ultimately, Mr. Vilsack and Mr. Obama's Department of Justice did not pursue antitrust efforts. & # 39; There was nothing, & # 39; said Mr. Corrigan. "It shriveled and went away."
Mr. Grassley has expressed his support for the appointment of Mr. Vilsack.
The pandemic has also exposed in new ways how industry consolidation could leave the nation's food supply vulnerable to disruptions. The closure of just a few slaughterhouses, even for a few weeks in April, cut pork production by as much as 5 percent, which led to the mass murders and the waste of thousands of pigs that could not be processed.
Still, breaking up the big meat packers is unlikely to be on Mr. Vilsack's list of priorities.
“The priority for the coming years will be to get the economy going,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents thousands of meat packers.
Since his departure from the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack has been the general manager of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a lobby group. In an interview with the Iowa starting line podcast in April 2019, Mr. Vilsack made it clear that he opposes policies promoted by other Democratic presidential candidates that would break up companies' agricultural conglomerates.
“There are a significant number of people hired and employed by these companies here in Iowa,” said Mr. Vilsack. "You're actually saying to those people," You might not have a job. "That's not a winning message to me."
Mr Vilsack said such ideas usually come from experts at "urban center think tanks" who have little experience with rural areas and rural residents. He said small farmers would benefit from policies that would lower their costs and give them more control over their ability to set prices and engage directly with buyers.
Mr. Vilsack is expected to be in stark contrast to Mr. Trump's agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, who was praised by some farmers for giving them subsidies but was criticized within the department for sidelining career workers and politicizing economic research. Last year, Mr. Perdue angered many of his internal economists when he decided on the agricultural research unit from Washington to Kansas City, which sparked a wave of departures and slowed her work.
To those who have worked with Mr. Vilsack, the idea that he is just an ally of industrial farming is unfair. Ms. McMillan, the former deputy chief of staff, said her former boss was always aware of the plight of small farmers, but that he should also look out for the wider industry.
"His job required him to advance rural America and the agricultural industry and feed people," she said. "You can't deal with the whole spectrum."