To a farmer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is an authority figure. USDA can be your banker, your salesman, your regulator, and your benefactor all wrapped into one. For outdoor enthusiasts, USDA maintains the National Forests you visit. For rural communities, USDA is a source of loans and grants that help maintain critical services like housing, waste disposal, and clean water. For schools and the disadvantaged, USDA is a source of food. And USDA is responsible to all Americans for making sure our food is safe to eat.
Abraham Lincoln called USDA the “people’s department.”
It’s easy to take a nuts-and-bolts bureaucratic agency like USDA for granted—until it stops working. That’s what happened in the initial stages of the Trump administration, when there didn’t seem to be anyone lined up for the top job of Secretary of Agriculture.
Then the name of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue was plucked from a hat, weeks into the new administration. His Senate confirmation hearing didn’t occur until two full months into Trump’s term. Eventually, Sonny cranked up the money machine to deliver subsidies and conservation funding to rural America. Most farmers here were happy. But then the China trade war came along. And Covid-19. Prices for the basic food commodities America consumes and exports took a nosedive. Then all those Sharpie-signed relief checks from Commodity Credit Corporation hit farm bank accounts. Farmers got happy again when they realized thanks to that cash from USDA, they were having their most profitable year in the last five.
Small farmers enjoyed little of that bonanza. But that’s nothing new in this and other administrations.
Despite initial concerns, Perdue proved to be a steady corporate hand on the wheel, avoiding the drama that many other Trump appointees encountered. That’s not to say everyone who relies on USDA is happy.
For instance, the position of undersecretary in charge of rural development was eliminated and reduced to an assistant secretary position. And it was immune to senate confirmation. And the antitrust regulatory Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) was combined with the Agricultural Marketing Service, which collaborates closely with many of the corporations, which in a best- case scenario, would be regulated by GIPSA. And nutrition guidelines that made school lunches healthier for children have been rolled back “to eliminate waste,” reopening the door to more processed food on the menu. Also, it seems the relocation of two USDA offices, ERS and NIFA from Washington D.C. to Kansas City, resulting in the loss of about 70% of the union work force in those offices who said moving to Kansas City constituted a hardship, may have been illegal.
However, all those concerns are about to become moot, or at least subject to change, because as George W Bush once put it, “there’s a new sheriff in town”.
Confirmed by a margin of 7 million votes—his name is Joe Biden.
The Biden team has been working in a more conventional way to establish his administration and name the top office holders in it sooner than the previous president. Near the top of the list was secretary of agriculture. We got this, folks. The first message from the Biden camp is that former Senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota would be great!
Hold on buckaroos… Not so fast.
That’s when the name of U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge of Cleveland, Ohio, came up. Fudge serves on the House Ag Committee. She chairs the subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Operations. And she wants the job. Fudge is seen as someone who would restore the importance of nutrition among other things, funding of which, incidentally, is down 22% from the 2013 high, and currently constitutes 65% of the USDA budget, even as we experience a pandemic that has destroyed the livelihoods of millions of Americans, most of whom are urban, and driven up the cost of food.
That’s just a reminder that USDA serves more than rural and agriculture.
Then more names surfaced. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was one. Vilsack was viewed as a shoo-in at the Obama transition in 2008 until more names came up then, too. Eventually, he left town saying he was no longer being considered for the post at USDA until about two weeks later when it was announced he’d won the AgSec lottery. (Interesting side note – few years after leaving office he really did win the lottery!)
There’s no word from Vilsack on his own standing in this race. It’s probably a smokescreen, but earlier reports say he backed Heitkamp for the job.
Another potential candidate is former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, who managed her duties quite well for the five years she served with Vilsack. Merrigan helped write organic standards in use today, and the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food campaign was largely her doing. Given the turf war developing among foodies, pro-competition aggies, corporate-ag producer groups, consolidated agriculture, and farmers, I can’t imagine anyone being unhappy with her as a known commodity in that position. But, then again, you can please some of the people some of the time, but it’s really hard to make everyone happy.
Latest to join the throng at the summit is agriculture labor leader and president emeritus of United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had the distinction of working with the legendary organizer Caesar Chavez. He brings strong labor and union credentials to the table and knowledge about much of our food system.
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said it best at the Missouri Farmers Union virtual meeting this month when he told attendees, “It’ll be hard to find someone to fill the (Ag Secretary) position who is an expert on everything” that the USDA does. That’s why it will be almost as important to name a deputy secretary or undersecretaries who are experts on more narrow aspects of the job. That was the role filled by Merrigan, who, other than Vilsack, is the candidate with the most direct experience.
No doubt all the names on the list amount to running them up the flagpole to see who, if anyone, salutes. Most big ag groups will wait to pick a favorite until they know who the favorite is. It’s best not to burn your bridges while crossing the river.
It was notable that when Sonny Perdue spoke at the National Farmers Union convention last year in Savannah, Georgia, he was averse to taking questions, and indicated he would leave immediately following his remarks. Knowing full well our group was to the left of his politics, he wasn’t taking any chances on negative reviews from the floor. We gave him a warm reception, and when he used magic words like exports, food, net income and family, applause demonstrated yet again that agriculture is not a partisan endeavor.
He even took a couple of questions.
Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.