Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack laid out his vision for defending the Biden Administration’s farm and food system policy record last week, leaning hard on his agency’s “more, new, and better markets” sales pitch.
Vilsack’s comments come in the early stages of this year’s federal Farm Bill reauthorization debate and outline a communications strategy that he says will help make the case for additional local food, climate change, and conservation investments.
Vilsack’s advice is to frame the debate around a basic question: “Do we want a system that benefits the few, or do we want a system that benefits the many and most?” He answered by saying there’s a better option than the “get-big-or-get-out” mantra of the Trump years. “There’s got to be a system in which the many and most have a fair shot.”
While there are certainly strong points to Vilsack’s public relations strategy–particularly the acknowledgment that USDA has done a poor job of supporting anyone but the largest and most wealthy row crop and livestock operations—the rhetoric fails to resonate with the realities of life in the trenches for many of us doing farm and food system reform work.
Vilsack’s “we support farmers of all sizes” balancing act fails to address the very real and interrelated issues of corporate control over markets, manure pollution from industrial livestock factories, continued increases in climate emissions from agriculture, and massive economic inequities between government support of farming operations. Without this critique, Vilsack’s USDA is talking a big game but failing to deliver the actual policies that will get to the root of key farm and food system challenges.
To Vilsack, the solutions are new income streams for farmers through value-added agriculture, carbon credits, and aviation biofuels. He even suggested that state governments and nonprofit groups “sitting on a bunch of money” could also support the deployment of this more inclusive agricultural story.
We would argue that the biofuels argument alone is off base, as there is no more prominent champion for “renewable fuels” than Secretary Vilsack. The Biden-Vilsack commitment to ethanol, biodiesel, industrial livestock biogas, aviation fuels, and more has landed these industries tens of billions in grants and subsidies. President’s first speech on addressing record inflation, remember, was a photo op at an ethanol plant in rural Iowa.
But just who of the “most and many” benefit from these biofuel markets? It’s not the typical farmer, whether they be a wheat and cattle producer in Oklahoma, a Hudson Valley vegetable and flower grower, or a Black farmer in western Alabama with a 70-acre cow-calf herd and woodlot. Biofuels markets support the handful of already highly concentrated large-scale corn and soybean producers, along with a relatively small number of industrial livestock operations looking for subsidies to address their manure problems.
The taxpayer support for growing the biofuel and biogas industry is running head-on into heavy opposition in many parts of rural America. Thousands of rural people in the Corn Belt are rallying in their state capitals to oppose a proposed ethanol industry CO2 pipeline network. Black families in North Carolina are speaking out against failed biogas projects in their communities. Climate change advocates in the sustainable agriculture sector continue to point out that industrial agriculture emissions increase climate pollution rather than address its core problems of soil management, overapplication of fertilizer, and industrial livestock manure.
And just who are the “most and many” of farmers right now? It’s clearly the approximately 800,000 cow-calf operators located throughout the country. There is a clear agenda promoted by family farm cow-calf producers: passing Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling of meat, strengthening the Packers and Stockyards Act, creating transparency and reforming commodity checkoffs, taking on the mega-meatpackers by preventing them from landing grants (such as Tyson Foods’ $61 million Climate Smart Agriculture Grant) or federal procurement contracts.
After a decade of experience on the job, Vilsack finally gets the problem right. But once again, he is getting the politics for the solutions all wrong. Whether he wants to admit it or not, there are two rural Americas. There are the chosen few in every community currently thriving in the corporate-dominated system–primarily those same commodity producers that continue to be propped up by federal farm policy–and then there is everyone else.
Vilsack’s proposed solutions might throw a few crumbs to the 90%, and it is certainly true that many good projects and much progress will come from conservation and climate spending. Still, without serious reforms, Wall Street investors will continue to press for more giant farms dependent on low-wage workers increasingly difficult to hire. The rural places we love in farm country will continue to hollow out until little is left of community identity, local institutions, or public services.
Like the thousands of advocates and organizers we regularly work with on farm and rural policy and analysis, it’s time we admit that the Vilsack approach is a political loser. By trying to have it both ways as he threads the policy needle between agribusiness greenwash and rhetoric about how the Biden administration is doing more for the “most and the many,” he will only hurt the President and Democrats in the long run. The Vilsack way has grown tired and lacks a voting base, as Corn Belt communities continue to deepen their support for Republicans.
There are, of course, many provisions in the Farm Bill we support that could help the majority of rural America, but that would mean reshaping who has the power in our food system. That would mean funding the right tools and opportunities so that rural people have a better life and some kind of vision of a potential economic future. That would mean taking on the Farm Bureau and their allies in the Agribusiness C Suites, the exact kind of place where Secretary Vilsack spends his time between Presidential appointments.
Bryce Oates is a writer who lives in Western North Carolina. Jake Davis works as an entrepreneur, farmer, consultant, and policy adviser.