While President Joe Biden’s appointment for secretary of agriculture awaits approval by the Senate, the veteran head of USDA, Tom Vilsack, is already considering his agenda for his second term.

During the January 20 Hoard’s Dairyman DairyLivestream, Cornell’s Andy Novakovic described six topics he expects Vilsack to emphasize in his administration:

  • Rural development
  • Building resiliency
  • Maintaining competitive balance in agriculture
  • Environmental related issues
  • Incentivizing special projects
  • Scientific leadership

At the forefront of the agenda will be rural development. Novakovic described it as a two-fold initiative that includes both technology as well as economic and community vibrancy.

“Rural broadband is a great example of technology investment,” he said. “That has really come to the forefront as everyone is trying to Zoom all over the place and so on.”

This investment in developing and strengthening rural communities ought to align with the goals of the House Agriculture Committee as well according to Novakovic. It also will likely tie into one of Vilsack’s other agenda items – building resiliency. This second pillar of the agenda is more vague, but Novakovic expects it to be related to local economies, building local networks, and supporting smaller scale farms.

A look at competitive markets
Maintaining competitive balance in agriculture was another agenda item that Novakovic expected Vilsack to further define as his administration progresses.

“He has what I’m describing as a competition agenda,” Novakovic explained. “Those aren’t his words, but he’s interested in the structure of agriculture and in the structure of the industries that serve agriculture including the agribusinesses that sell things to farmers and the processors that buy things from farmers. He’s interested in identifying if people are getting a fair shake.

“He’s mentioned large meat packers as perhaps having more influence in what happens in the beef industry than we might all agree is appropriate. He’s mentioned this from the standpoint of employment and workers safety issues,” the long-time economist continued.

As Vilsack puts together his team, Novakovic expects him to address these ideas further.

Environmental leadership
Another large and perhaps more defined component of Vilsack’s agenda is anticipated to be environmental issues. It’s expected that, along with the Democratic led House and Senate Agriculture Committees, much work will be done in this area and in giving agriculture the credit it deserves for its leadership.

This will tie closely with the future secretary of agriculture’s final two initiatives. The fist is incentivizing special projects.

“He can’t just fabricate a whole bunch of environmental programs, but he can authorize these kinds of experimental, demonstration, small-scale projects,” Novakovic anticipated.

“I think he has an ambition to try out some ideas that possibly will be informative when we get to bigger list items, farm bill or otherwise. I think he will be open to supporting agriculture but probably with more strings attached, not just 'Here’s a check, go and do whatever you want.'”

That brings us to the final agenda item mentioned by Novakovic – scientific leadership. “I think one of the things Vilsack is hoping to do is to use the resources of USDA, which includes the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the Office of the Chief Scientist, and a whole bunch of very well-trained, bright people to bolster the science and create some templates that could inform how other people think agriculture ought to be regulated,” he explained. “I think he’s going to try to get ahead of the curve to create an argument that can be seen as having scientific integrity.”

More developments and clarity are expected as Vilsack gets appointed and continues to develop his leadership team.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2021
February 1, 2021
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