Is ‘Transformation’ the next USDA Buzzword?

In what was billed as a “transformation of the food system,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced what he described as a new and historic round of USDA investments last week designed “to benefit consumers, producers and rural communities by providing more options, increasing access, and creating new, more, and better markets for small and mid-size producers.”

Vilsack went on to list several pools of funding to accomplish this mission, including:

  • Up to $300 million in a new Organic Transition Initiative.
  • Up to $75 million to support urban agriculture.
  • Deployment of up to $375 million in support for independent meat and poultry processing plant projects.
  • Up to $600 million in financial assistance to support food supply chain infrastructure.
  • Investment of $400 million to create regional food business centers.
  • Investing $60 million to leverage increased commodity purchases through Farm-to-School programming.
  • Investing up to $90 million to prevent and reduce food loss and waste.
  • Increase funding to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative by $155 million.
  • An additional $50 million in the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.
  • An additional $40 million in the GusNIP Produce Prescriptions Program.
  • $25 million to support SNAP technology improvements.

Usually, when it comes to laundry lists of novel federal farm and food programs totaling millions of dollars like this, my policy wonk nerd brain kicks into overdrive. And I 100% do want to applaud the thousands of people who have worked for years on local food systems, food system reform, healthy food access, organic farming and more to get these policies on the USDA radar screen. There is no doubt that these are important programs and many, many people will benefit from their roll-out.


This is Secretary Vilsack, and this announcement represents little more than a highlight reel of funding delivered by Congress through the last couple of years of budget reconciliation, plus remaining Covid relief funding (remember the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan Act?). USDA cannot simply conjure up funding to do what the secretary wants, other than using the Commodity Credit Corporation tool which Vilsack did not do here.

And Vilsack packaged this all within an “all of the above” strategy where he also listed the needs for expanded exports, additional support for commodity producers, bringing more commodity production online and his pet “climate smart commodities” funding. He’s basically laying down the gauntlet here, for what he sees as the siderails on the debate over the farm bill, which will be written in 2023. (See Lisa Held’s Civil Eats interview with Vilsack for more critical coverage).

All of the above strategies are that kind of governing and policymaking where you try to make everybody happy and end up giving some people a salad-and-garlic-bread-lasagna-dinner while most are told to be happy they at least got a token Nilla Wafer and some mealy yellow delicious apples. They’re the political tool of appeasement. Like when we spend many billions per year in fossil fuel subsidies and spend $40 million through the REAP program putting up solar panels in rural America.

To truly “transform the food system,” USDA and Congress would need to aggressively regulate, fine and prosecute the multinational agribusiness corporations who run the show. They would need to exercise their tools of antitrust, the Packers and Stockyards Act, of taxing the rich.

Mostly, they would need to find a backbone and actually take action against the dominant farm and food exploitation machine rather than just dressing up niche programs with high-minded buzzwords and rhetorical flare.

Rural Reading List

Moving beyond my longstanding critique of Secretary Vilsack, here’s this week’s Keep It Rural reading list. Enjoy:

Bipartisan Senate Bills Seek to Diminish Corporate Squeeze on Meat Pricing

This Daily Yonder story presents a legislative approach to reforming beef cattle markets.

Commentary: What Growing Up in Rural Germany Taught Me about Guns

This Michaela Haas commentary, republished by the Yonder, lays out some common sense gun regulations that prevent mass shootings in other countries while protecting the ability of hunters and gun enthusiasts to do their thing.

Powering Electric Cars: the Race to Mine Lithium in America’s Backyard

From the rural impact of the clean energy boom files, this Financial Times article heads to North Carolina for a look at how a proposed lithium mine is seen by locals who would have to live with it.

Being J.D. Vance: Few Understand Better How the Left Lost Rural America

Another J.D. Vance think piece? No!!! I would urge you all to read this one not because I expect you to agree with it, nor Vance and his uppity manipulative political ambition. But because there are things in there that amount to a story a lot of rural people embrace.

One More Thing: My Favorite Summer Songs, Country Music Edition

“I still remember when 30 was old.”

—Deana Carter

I figure longtime Keep It Rural readers know by now this newsletter is powered by a steady stream of black coffee and country music. This edition is no different.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the tribute version of Deana Carter’s 1996 megahit, “Strawberry Wine.” It’s a beautifully perfect version featuring Deana Carter, Martina McBride, Lauren Alaina, Ashley McBryde, Kylie Morgan, and Vince Gill recorded for the album: “Did I Shave My Legs For This? 25th Anniversary Edition.” Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.

It’s a perfect song for summer, and it is currently turning me into an emotional train wreck as I fly across the country to spend some time celebrating my oldest son’s high school graduation. Time flies. People get old. Days tick by. All of those things.

I am also gonna use this Keep It Rural platform to drop my favorite summer country song of all time: “Fishin’ in the Dark,” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Crickets are singing and the lightnin’ bugs are definitely floatin’ in the breeze here in the North Carolina mountains. Happy summer, Keep It Rural readers. Enjoy it.

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