The fight over Tom Vilsack joining Biden’s Cabinet as agriculture secretary, explained

On Thursday, the Joe Biden transition team announced that it was asking a number of influential Obama administration officials to return to government — including Tom Vilsack, the only member of Obama’s Cabinet to keep his role for two full terms, who will be renominated for a third term as secretary of agriculture.

Vilsack’s nomination is unusual, to say the least. Cabinet members are rarely asked back to their old posts by subsequent administrations. But precisely because Vilsack has already served as secretary, and so recently, farmers and activists have an extremely strong sense of what kind of secretary he’ll be.

It’s revealing, then, that his nomination has sparked immediate controversy and consternation among civil rights, animal, anti-monopoly, and family farm advocates who were disappointed in his prior tenure — and with the fact that he’s spent the past four years working for Big Agriculture, earning a $999,421 annual salary as head of the US Dairy Export Council, a dairy industry group. He has defenders; one veteran of the Vilsack USDA praised the secretary to me for making “real efforts to improve program delivery” of the department’s crucial loan programs to farmers.

But while other Cabinet picks have prompted choruses of praise from progressives, Vilsack has mostly prompted concern. Groups like the Independent Black Farmers coalition and the Family Farm Action Alliance have strongly criticized Vilsack’s record, with the former’s president Michael Stovall telling Politico, “When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that.”

“Vilsack failed to enact protections for slaughterhouse workers or improve the department’s treatment of black farmers, and oversaw the approval of high-speed slaughter,” Leah Garcés, president of the animal welfare group Mercy for Animals, said in a statement.

Playing into these worries is progressives’ disappointment that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who was backed by a number of progressive groups to serve as secretary of agriculture, was not selected. Instead, Biden has chosen her as secretary of housing and urban development, although Fudge, who has a long track record on the Agriculture Committee in the House and is a widely admired expert on food stamps policy, has no real record to speak of on housing.

The assignment of Fudge to HUD, despite her being much more obviously qualified for the agriculture job, also has unfortunate racial overtones. “We’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in,” Fudge, who is a Black woman, told reporters mere days before her HUD appointment. “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.’” (Fudge later told a reporter for The 19th, “Everybody knows how passionate I am about feeding hungry children … I can do so much of the same things with HUD.”)

But the furor over Vilsack is about more than disappointment about Fudge. You can divide concerns over Vilsack into four broad categories. Civil rights groups are angry over what they see as his failure to adequately root out discrimination against Black farmers, and for his firing of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod in 2009. Animal advocates are concerned he did not do enough to improve living standards for farmed animals. And farmworker and anti-monopoly advocates are disappointed by his failure to fight monopolistic practices among chicken growers despite pledges to do so, and for a weak record on worker safety.

The USDA is a big, sprawling agency, and a complete assessment of Vilsack’s record would stretch beyond these issues. The food writer Michael Pollan, for instance, has argued that Vilsack’s USDA was asleep at the wheel when it comes to fighting greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. But treatment of Black farmers, treatment of animals, and treatment of Big Ag companies (and the workers and growers they oversee) have emerged as the main issues at stake in his nomination.

Vilsack’s record on Black farmers

The USDA, while a crucial agency for the 35 million-plus Americans on food stamps and millions of farmers and farmworkers, doesn’t make headlines in the mainstream press that often. An exception came on July 19, 2010, when a misleadingly edited clip of Shirley Sherrod, the department’s Georgia state director of rural development, was posted by far-right provocateur Andrew Breitbart. The clip showed Sherrod, during a speech at a local NAACP event, recalling a time she helped a white farmer in 1986; Breitbart edited the clip to make it sound as though she initially refused to help him because he was white. Before the day was out, Sherrod was forced to resign. The White House told reporters it was “100% Vilsack’s call” to force her to quit.

Quickly, though, it became clear that the video had been taken wildly out of context; the white farmer in question went on CNN to defend Sherrod. By Wednesday, Vilsack admitted he had been taken in by a scurrilous right-wing hit job and offered Sherrod a new position at the USDA, telling reporters, “This is a good woman, she’s been put through hell and I could have and should have done a better job.”

Civil rights leaders critical of Vilsack see the incident as illustrative of the department’s inaction on racial discrimination. In a conference call with Biden, NAACP president Derrick Johnson made the point in terms of the upcoming Georgia Senate elections, telling the president-elect, “former Secretary Vilsack could have a disastrous impact on voters in Georgia. Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero.”

But Sherrod is only the beginning of racial equity concerns regarding Vilsack. A 2019 investigation by Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki in the publication The Counter painted a devastating picture of Vilsack’s civil rights record, finding that he dragged out discrimination cases until they reached the statute of limitations and no longer needed resolution, and foreclosed on Black farmers six times as often as white farmers. “The department sent a lower share of loan dollars to black farmers than it had under President Bush, then used census data in misleading ways to burnish its record on civil rights,” they add.

Vilsack’s defenders highlight places where he did make progress. A veteran of the Vilsack USDA noted he reformed the Farm Service Agency’s county committees, a key form of community consultation. Committees used to have non-voting “minority advisers” to address racial equity concerns, and Vilsack successfully pushed to give those representatives voting rights. For his part, Vilsack told Rosenberg and Stucki, “It is amazing to me that anyone would be critical of the Obama Administration in connection with civil rights claims.” Another source familiar with the president-elect’s thinking defended Vilsack’s record on civil rights, citing his department’s increase in microloans to historically disadvantaged farmers.

The Biden transition declined to comment on the record.

The Vilsack USDA on animals

Under Vilsack’s leadership, the USDA did make some strides toward improving animal welfare on farms. Garcés of Mercy for Animals credits him with the USDA’s move to require “organic” labeled meat products to meet animal welfare guidelines (the Trump administration rescinded the proposed rule).

But generally, Vilsack had a fairly dismal record on animal protection. In 2015, a coalition of major organizations — the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion Over Killing, Farm Forward, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — submitted a petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) demanding new rules that would compensate for the agency’s failures to adequately enforce laws requiring humane slaughter of animals.

The petition documented cases when FSIS inspectors witnessed farms slaughtering animals by shooting them in the head and letting them slowly bleed out, yet declined to suspend the plants in question. It also documented 32 cases of abuse worthy of criminal indictment (like electrically prodding an animal’s genitals) that were not prosecuted.

Vilsack’s USDA did not even respond to the petition, much less enact the rules suggested.

Under Vilsack, the USDA also moved forward with two related major changes in meat processing regulation, which served to make the process more dangerous for workers and animals, and less costly for producers. The first reduced the number of federal inspectors at poultry plants and delegated more authority over inspections to meat companies, over the protests of food safety groups; advocates argued this made the inspection process more efficient and claimed the old process relied too much on in-person inspectors visually inspecting livestock, which is a crude way to test for pathogens in food.

The second effort proposed an increase in line speeds at poultry plants, from 140 birds per minute to 175. The Vilsack USDA proposed that change in 2012 but reversed course in 2014 after overwhelming pressure from safety and workers’ rights groups, who argued the change would be immensely dangerous for workers in these plants. The Trump administration later picked up where Vilsack’s 2012 rule left off and pushed for higher line speeds for multiple species of farm animal.

In short, this is not the kind of record that animal advocates, hopeful for a USDA that could serve as a partner in working to shrink factory farms and their abuses, are looking for in a secretary.

Vilsack on Big Agriculture

Early in Vilsack’s tenure at USDA, the agency and the Justice Department conducted an extensive listening tour talking to chicken growers about the ways in which large poultry companies control their businesses.

Chicken growing largely operates on a contract model where small growers buy hundreds of chicks from a major chicken supplier, like Purdue Farms or Pilgrim’s Pride. They are then required to grow those chickens to an exact weight demanded by the supplier, and compensated when the chickens are picked up for slaughter. But growers often don’t know what the suppliers will ultimately pay, making their financial situations precarious.

“One year I worked 12 months and made $3,000,” grower Craig Watts told my colleague Byrd Pinkerton when she reported a story on antitrust issues in chicken growing. Because the companies typically don’t compete in each other’s regions, growers usually can’t switch to another supplier to get a better deal. It’s an issue that advocates for small growers, and anti-monopoly advocates, have been flagging for years as an antitrust concern.

The listening tour suggested Vilsack would oversee a change on the issue — but he didn’t. The USDA issued a widely praised draft rule to increase protections for growers in 2010, but it was never implemented. But by November 2011, the newly Republican House had passed a rider gutting the new rules, and critics like antitrust expert Lina Khan have argued the Obama administration did little to resist the backlash. Ultimately, “Vilsack only completed them in the administration’s final days, and even then in weakened form,” David Dayen, a frequent writer on monopoly issues and leading Vilsack critic, has written. “Because they hadn’t taken effect yet, the Trump administration swiftly nullified the rules.”

To his critics, this seems like an indication that Vilsack was never really interested in standing up to Big Agriculture, an impression he has not done much to rebut in his own statements. In a podcast in 2019, he attacked Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for criticizing large agriculture companies, saying, “there are a substantial number of people hired and employed by those businesses here in Iowa. So you’re essentially saying to all of those folks, you might be out of a job.” He argued the focus on anti-monopoly measures came from “folks in think tanks in urban centers who have had very little experience, if any, with rural places.”

The USDA veteran sympathetic to Vilsack whom I spoke with argued that critics need to have more patience. “I imagine that it is one of those items that in hindsight that a lot of folks would agree more can and should be done,” the official says. “There is a huge wave of momentum.”

For animal, civil rights, and antitrust advocates, that is the hope — that the momentum behind their critiques of factory farms, and the abuses and discriminatory practices they perpetrate, will be enough to change Vilsack’s policies during a second tenure as secretary. But right now, the odds look fairly grim.

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