Second servings: What Tom Vilsack’s return means for the USDA

Policy: Back in November we covered the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion climate plan that calls for the conservation of 30 percent of the US lands and water by 2030, in addition to a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. Biden campaigned on a plan for rural America that recognized the important role that agriculture must play in combating our climate crisis. But with control of the Senate coming down to two January runoff elections in Georgia, skeptics were left wondering how much of this progressive agenda could ever see the light of day. Fast forward to today – Democrats now control both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, for the first time in a decade. In doing so, voters have given Democrats an opportunity to enact ambitious, concrete policy change. 

And on February 2nd, in a unanimous vote, the Senate Agriculture Committee advanced Tom Vilsack’s nomination as secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vilsack, 70, is a former Iowa governor who previously led the USDA for two terms during the Obama administration. The 29 agencies that make up the department determine our nation’s relationship with the environment and are liable for our passage through the climate crisis. If confirmed by the US Senate, he would take the helm of the USDA after a yearlong slide in crop prices – precipitated by record-breaking harvests and international trade disputes. And despite a 7 percent decline compared to 2019, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcy filings in 2020 were the third highest over the last decade. In the face of adversity, Vilsack vows to build on Biden’s ambitious vision of reaching net-zero emission in US agriculture by:

Utilizing federal funds to incentivize regenerative practices

The last coronavirus relief bill set aside $13 billion to support crop and livestock producers. Vilsack has also pledged to utilize the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which has the authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the US Treasury, to expand payments to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners for conservation stewardship – i.e., rotating crops, reducing tillage, planting cover crops, strategically grazing livestock, etc. Between 2018-2020, the Trump administration tapped into the CCC to allocate $46 billion in farm subsidies to help cushion the blow from the US-China trade war and global pandemic. 

Boosting “eco-friendly” agricultural industries

In his Senate hearing, Vilsack proposed building a rural economy upon transforming organic waste into new revenue streams and products like biochar. Yet many environmentalists are wary of Biden’s interest in biofuels – especially corn ethanol. Government support of ethanol production may do little more than increase emissions and enable monocultures to become more profitable by turning their waste streams into value-added resources.

Paving the way for new ecosystem service markets

In truth, few legislators took carbon sequestration seriously during Vilsack’s previous stint at the USDA. But in recent months, Vilsack has pressed Congress to construct an advisory group of farmers that can provide guidance on how to structure carbon markets, measure and quantify the results, and ensure that capital flows to producers. With a lens on the future, Vilsack believes that the USDA pilot projects could inform full-scale carbon capture programs in the 2023 farm bill

Many critics of Vilsack assert that he failed to address climate change and corporate consolidation in agriculture the first time around. To be fair, Congress restricted the use of the CCC during Vilsack’s previous tenure – limiting his ability to invest in eco-friendly practices. In 2021, there is no more room to make excuses about why sweeping action is not possible. To meet Biden’s lofty goals, the USDA has no choice but to promote sustainable farming and reorient the entire sector to embrace climate resiliency. Until then, we’d love to hear your thoughts about Vilsack’s nomination. 

Read: In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is a spiritual discipline. But today’s agribusiness has quickly taken food production out of its cultural context. In doing so, modern-day farming treats the life of soil as if it were an extractable resource, uses livestock as if they were machines, and imposes scientific preciseness upon natural systems. As a result, we as a nation are more alienated from the land than ever before. The collection of letters is a combination of philosophy, criticism, and prescription to reform our industrialized food system. Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, and professor at the University of Kentucky. Above all else, he is a fifth-generation farmer who still manages his own acreage, relying on draft animals instead of tractors.