Tom Vilsack speaks March 1 during the National Farmers Union annual convention.

In his second stint as U.S. secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack plans to strengthen markets for farmers while accomplishing Biden administration goals.

“This is going to be a very active and proactive USDA,” said Vilsack, who the led agency for eight years under President Barack Obama.

Confirmed for his latest appointment by the Senate on Feb. 23, Vilsack has been making the rounds of major ag events, speaking virtually to the National Farmers Union’s annual convention on March 1 and the Commodity Classic four days later.

To both audiences he presented the same set of goals for USDA — “more markets, better markets, newer markets and fairer markets.”

This framework is based on a startling fact. Only 10% of American farm families earn most of their income from agricultural production.

“We need to do a lot more work to create a situation and an industry where more people can make the majority of what they make from what they want to do and what they love to do,” Vilsack said.

Competing in Foreign Markets

To achieve that goal, USDA will need to make changes that improve farm profitability, and that means reshaping the markets.

Or for starters, simply getting “more” of them, as Vilsack put it.

The ag secretary, who led the U.S. Dairy Export Council between his periods in office, is keen to grow and open foreign markets for American farm products.

To do that, he said, the U.S. must increase the number of people promoting its goods in other countries and understand what those markets require.

Vilsack would like to negotiate with the United Kingdom and European Union, as well as nations in Asia and Africa where populations and standards of living are on the rise.

“Any trade agreement must include open access to agricultural products,” he said. And once those deals are signed, Vilsack wants to ensure that trading partners hold up their end of the bargain.

In his second week on the job, he said he prodded the Canadian ag minister to expand opportunities for U.S. wheat and dairy, and pressed his Mexican counterpart to increase acceptance of GMOs.

China, which committed to major purchases of U.S. farm products after a costly trade war, will remain an important market, but Vilsack doesn’t want farmers to be too dependent on America’s chief rival.

“On any given day, something may happen in the South China Sea or in Taiwan or in Hong Kong or someplace else that creates a friction between our two countries,” he said.

USDA needs to have a voice in national security matters so that America’s strategic actions do not inadvertently disrupt ag trade, he said.

Vilsack Aims for Domestic Growth

In addition to growing abroad, Vilsack said he intends to bolster the local food scene, farm-to-school initiatives, and food hubs.

Under the heading of “better markets,” Vilsack plans to improve transparency and competitiveness.

He wants to improve price discovery — a key concern for beef farmers — and strengthen regulations to ensure farmers are treated fairly.

Remembering last spring’s supply-chain snarls caused by virus outbreaks at a handful of major packers, Vilsack also wants to grow the number of small meat companies.

“I think if we had expanded processing capacity, we’d have more competition, and we’d also have greater resilience,” he said.

The “new markets” Vilsack envisions would advance both farmers’ profits and the Biden administration’s goals for climate change.

Vilsack aims to set up a carbon market in which farmers get paid for using cover crops, diversifying their plantings and grazing rotationally — practices that already interest farmers.

Of the roughly 135 million carbon credits on the books, only 2.5 million are farm-related. That’s because existing credits are structured to appeal to investors, not farmers, Vilsack said.

Any new program would need to flip that focus. “It’s the farmers who are going to be sequestering the carbon,” Vilsack said. “It’s the farmers who are going to provide some of the early wins, if you will, in an effort on climate.”

Vilsack also hopes to promote manure-to-energy projects and other ways to make money from agricultural waste.

He hopes to test a lot of concepts for environmental programs over the next year so that they can inform the drafting of the 2023 Farm Bill.

To create “fairer markets,” Vilsack said USDA must address concerns that Black farmers face disadvantages because of their race.

A new equity commission will investigate all USDA agencies to find and remove any systemic racism that exists in them, he said.

Racial justice ranks with climate as a top administration focus, and during his confirmation process, Vilsack tried to reassure Democrats who thought he shortchanged Black farmers’ needs during the Obama years.

“It is a different time. It is a different department. And to a certain extent, I’m a different person coming into this role,” he said.

A Closer Look at the State of U.S. Agriculture

Many of Vilsack’s market-related proposals track with farm groups’ objectives. Still, the rationale for his platform may not be as compelling or urgent as he makes it sound.

Though only 10% of farmers make most of their living from the land — or 89.6% do not, in Vilsack’s phrasing — the ag secretary glossed over just how small many U.S. farms are.

Nearly half gross less than $5,000 a year, and 30% produce less than $1,000.

Some of these tiny farms are beginning or small-scale operations that owners hope to grow, but many are likely retirement or side businesses that the operators do not intend to use as their livelihood.

And in many cases, farming simply doesn’t require the whole family’s involvement the way it once did.

“Most U.S. households require 2 incomes to make ends meet, why would (should) farming be any different? I’m related to a lot of Iowa farmers, and most wives work off the farm,” Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst at the Environmental Working Group, tweeted in response to Vilsack.

Building Out the USDA Team

Beyond the framework of bigger and better markets, one of Vilsack’s priorities is rebuilding the USDA staff. Vilsack said the Trump administration left a fairly high vacancy rate, including farmer-facing positions in the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Adding to the disorder, many staffers at two research agencies quit after the Trump team took the unusual step of moving their D.C.- based programs to Kansas City.

“We have got to rebuild the morale,” Vilsack said. Vilsack has also ordered an evaluation of the pandemic aid that USDA has delivered to see which groups should receive more help.

That assessment should conclude within a few weeks, but Vilsack already expects biofuels and specialty crops will be among the sectors getting a funding boost.