A New York Times feature explores the likely impact of Tom Vilsack, appointed by President-elect Joe Biden to reprise his role as agriculture secretary.
Mr. Vilsack has faced particular criticism for the fading fortunes of Black farmers, who have long complained of discrimination when it comes to land and credit access. He also was at the center of a racial firestorm during the Obama administration. In 2010, he hastily fired Shirley Sherrod, a Black Agriculture Department official, after a conservative blogger released a misleading video clip that appeared to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer. He later apologized and tried to rehire her.
Mr. Vilsack would rejoin the Agriculture Department in a much different climate from the one during his eight years under Mr. Obama. The pandemic has put intense focus on the struggles and dangers of employees of meatpacking plants. Thousands of workers became ill with the coronavirus after many plants failed to take basic precautions to protect them.
Environmental and agricultural policy groups have derided him as being too cozy with “Big Ag,” pointing to the rapid consolidation in the farm sector that occurred under his watch, when companies such as Monsanto and Bayer merged.
Critics of Mr. Vilsack, who recently earned $1 million a year as a lobbyist for the dairy industry, worry that he will favor big industry over independent farmers and not do enough to ensure worker safety.
Food safety and labor advocates also criticised his decision as secretary to allow a significant increase in slaughter line speeds in poultry plants, which can increase the risk of injuries to workers, along with a revamp of the chicken inspection process to allow meatpacking employees to perform some of the duties previously carried out by government inspectors.
“If past is prologue, we have strong concerns that he will continue to do the bidding of industry,” said Zach Corrigan, a senior staff lawyer at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watchdog group, which opposes Mr. Vilsack’s nomination.
“I think he’ll fold under pressure from the ag lobby, the subsidy lobby and big agriculture,” said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan organization that is critical of industrial agriculture. “I really do feel as if we needed fresh leadership there on a number of grounds.”
While many farm groups such as the National Farmers Union and Feeding America have expressed support for his nomination, some farmers are wary that the Biden administration could herald new and onerous regulations.