Biden agriculture pick boosts farmer hopes on biofuel, trade

Kim Chipman

The prospect of Tom Vilsack returning to oversee U.S. agriculture is drawing praise from some farmers who are hopeful the former Democratic Iowa governor will be an ally on everything from biofuels and dairy to China and climate-friendly farming.

President-elect Joe Biden said Thursday that Vilsack is his pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack, who served eight years under Barack Obama, would be one of the country’s longest-serving USDA secretaries.

Tom Vilsack

Vilsack would arrive at USDA on the heels of farmers receiving a record $47 billion this year in federal aid to make up for losses from the pandemic and President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. The industry also faces questions on the future of biofuels, food security and conservation at the same time Congress is set to begin grueling work on the next Farm Bill.

Vilsack’s experience both in Washington and the Corn Belt is reassuring to some growers, even as he faces criticism from environmental and civil rights groups.

“Vilsack is a positive for agriculture,” said Dan Cekander, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in central Illinois who voted for Trump in 2016, but backed Biden this year after disappointment in the current administration’s approach on corn-based ethanol.

Cekander, though, said he gives Trump credit for compensating farmers on trade and pandemic-related losses, as well as for having the “guts” to take on China.

Vilsack is expected to have a clear path to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Republicans, including on Capitol Hill, praised the choice.

Steve Sukup, a former Iowa state Republican lawmaker who now heads grain-bin maker Sukup Manufacturing Co., said the choice is “very positive.”

“We are confident Secretary Vilsack will continue to support American farmers and ranchers through common-sense trade and renewable-fuels policy,” Sukup said by email.

President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, fourth from right, inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm with members of the McIntosh family, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Missouri Valley, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa.

Thorny Issue

Vilsack, former two-term governor of the top corn-producing state of Iowa, has spoken out against Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency over the thorny issue of whether some oil refiners should be exempt from annual biofuel-blending requirements. Vilsack has said the approach by Trump’s EPA has left farmers with excess corn, suppressing prices.

Biden believes waivers shouldn’t be granted “to refineries that are owned or operated by large oil companies like Exxon and Chevron,” Vilsack said in an October interview.While the EPA has the lead role over such biofuel policies, “having Vilsack as agriculture secretary would only increase the odds” that refinery exemptions go away, said Cekander, founder of DC Analysis, which focuses on helping clients with the grain market.

Vilsack “knows that renewable fuel policy is essential to a strong agriculture economy,” said Randall Stuewe, chief executive officer of Darling Ingredients Inc., one of the largest producers of renewable clean energy.

Iowa farmer Kevin Ross, also chair of the National Corn Growers Association, said Vilsack “was one of the few voices in the Obama administration that was very vocal on biofuels. Hopefully he can bring more folks into that camp in the Biden administration.”

Electric Vehicles

While Vilsack is expected to reprise his role as a bullish supporter of biofuels if confirmed, Biden has promoted electric vehicles and taken a more nuanced approach to the Renewable Fuel Standard that mandates biofuel use. Vilsack could play a part in shaping the administration’s electric vehicle and fuel policies, said Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist and co-chair of Bracewell LLP’s Policy Resolution Group.

Vilsack “knows the range of fuels of the future don’t just include the most traditional forms of biofuel but also newly developed advanced fuels like renewable diesel and like the renewable products that may be used for aviation fuel,” Segal said. “He will probably be looking at what’s coming next, not just what’s come before.”

In the October interview, Vilsack said any concern that a Biden administration would shun biofuels as part of a push electric cars is unwarranted and wildly unrealistic.

“We’re talking about generations that will pass before we have a vehicle fleet that is even remotely close to being all electric,” Vilsack said. “We’re talking about a significant amount of time in which we will continue to see vehicles that need and should use ethanol and biofuels.”

Front Lines

Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman said Vilsack being part of Biden’s Cabinet will be “tremendously important in helping on trade issues.”

While it was important to address imbalances with China, Trump’s trade war “put farmers on the front lines to bear the brunt of it and then try to pick up the pieces later,” Lehman said. “We would much rather be earning money from the marketplace than receiving a payment to make up for policies that have failed.”

One global and domestic issue incoming administration officials will be tasked with addressing right away is climate change.

Cekander of DC Analysis said he’s interested in how the USDA might use the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides grants meant to help farmers and ranchers reduce their carbon footprints with more environmentally sound techniques, such as changing livestock feed. Trump has previously proposed eliminating the program.

Little Support

Not everyone is a fan.

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr. said his group, which has more than 100,000 members in 46 states, had a “tough time” with Vilsack during the Obama administration in getting support for legislation aimed at addressing discrimination against Black farmers. Boyd said if Vilsack leads the USDA again he should make racial justice issues a top priority.

Biden is said to have settled on Vilsack after also considering Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department. Fudge was selected to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s selection of “an agribusiness lobbyist with a tarnished record on civil rights, consolidation, and the environment.”

Immediate Issue

The most immediate issue for all agencies though will be dealing with the ongoing devastation of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has put a spotlight on food safety and security.

“We would urge Vilsack to expand nutrition assistance programs,” National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said in a statement.

Vilsack would likely return USDA’s focus back to traditional food assistance programs and away from Trump’s “Farmers to Families Food Box” initiative, Lucas Fuess, director of dairy market intelligence at HighGround Dairy, said by email. That program began in May to help provide milk and food to those in need as farmers saw production sharply drop during the first wave of the pandemic.

Vilsack’s current role as head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council has given him a “front-row seat” in seeing how the pandemic has revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s food system, American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said in a statement. “Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand.”