Major news for Agriculture this week was the hearing on the nomination of Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture. This will be Vilsack’s 2nd appearance as Secretary of Agriculture.
On Tuesday, February 2, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing to consider the nomination of The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack to be the Secretary of Agriculture. The hearing was meant to assess the nominee’s position on certain subjects, particularly on biofuels, climate change, awareness of federal programs, and market concentration in meat processing. Another important subject was the expectation of the Secretary to help American farmers expand into new domestic and foreign markets to increase sales of their agricultural products. Having already served as Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2016, Vilsack came into the meeting highly regarded by members of the committee on both sides of the political aisle and his credentials were never questioned, allowing a productive Q&A regarding policy stances and priorities to take place throughout the hearing. In a unanimous vote, the committee advanced Tom Vilsack’s nomination as Secretary of Agriculture.
Members in Attendance
Incoming Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Incoming Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR), Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), Sen. John Thune (R-SD)
The Future of Biofuels with the Emergence of Electric Vehicles
The stability and growth of the biofuel industry are of top priority for many Senators, but many feel that Biden’s policies are not aligned with this goal. Sen. Grassley, however, said he was pleased with the nomination of Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture, with one of the reasons being that Vilsack had a strong history of promoting biofuels domestically.
A particular concern to many Senators was the increasing presence of the electric vehicle industry in the fuel market, which some believed to be of greater priority to the Biden administration than biofuels. Sen. Ernst first asked about this shift from biofuel to electricity run vehicles and inquired about what Vilsack would do to support the biofuel industry. Vilsack answered that both industries were important and necessary. He stated that there are new opportunities to expand the role biofuels play in the fueling of planes, trucks, and ships. He also added that it needed to be acknowledged that electric vehicles will continue to be more widely used and that this presents an opportunity to use biofuels to supply that higher demand for electricity. In a follow-up question, Vilsack affirmed that millions of Americans will continue to use their older vehicles and that this older fleet of cars and the fuel they rely on will therefore not be disappearing soon.
Some Senators were worried about proper assistance not being granted to the biofuel industry throughout the Trump administration and the pandemic. After saying the Trump administration had made the wrong decisions when it came to waivers to oil companies, Sen. Klobuchar stated that 150 ethanol plants had closed around the country. She asked what Vilsack planned to do with biofuels, and Vilsack told her that he agreed that the waivers granted by the Trump administration were wrong. He said that waivers were meant to be rare and only granted to small companies, not Chevron or Exxon. When Grassley asked Vilsack on whether he would support moving some money allocated to the USDA in the CARES Act towards aiding struggling biofuel businesses, Vilsack said he’d see if money from other sources could be used to address that.
A key mission of the Department of Agriculture according to Vilsack and many Senators is to find new markets domestically and abroad. Following a question from Sen. Boozman on how he would work with the recently created Undersecretary for Trade and Agricultural Affairs and expand trade opportunities, Vilsack said that the USDA had a responsibility to maintain strong communication with the Undersecretary for two reasons. First, it is vital to have a presence, through the Undersecretary, in those export markets to make sure U.S. agriculture is front of mind for those purchasing in those markets. Second, new partnerships must be forged in foreign countries.
Sen. Stabenow wanted to know how a sense of normalcy could return to the farm economy and Vilsack’s answer involved the development of new markets and the stabilization of existing ones as well. There were three areas of expansion he mentioned. The first was completely new geographical markets such as Southeast Asia and Africa, which are due to have exploding populations in the coming years. The second focus was to grow the domestic markets by further developing a robust local and regional food system that creates market opportunities for small and midsized producers so that they can negotiate their own price. The last one, Vilsack explained, was expanding into entirely new industries such as methane capture and carbon sequestration.
The timber market was of particular concern to Sen. Hyde-Smith, who both worried about the lack of insurance programs that protected the wood industry from natural disasters and was interested in learning how the USDA could help innovation within the timber industry. Vilsack was quick to point out his previous efforts as Secretary of Agriculture to promote the construction of high-rise buildings using cross-laminated timber, saying the technology could be applied to government, specifically, Department of Defense, construction projects.
Sen. Fischer asked Vilsack about how innovation could keep the United States as a global leader in fueling and feeding the world. Vilsack responded that it would provide a significant market advantage if the U.S. became recognized for producing food sustainably. In a response to Sen. Braun, Vilsack said the U.S. was “on the cusp” of finding new markets.
Another solution proposed by Vilsack on growing markets was maximizing the ones that already exist. Sen. Brown asked Vilsack how the food supply chain could be diversified while continuing to help local medium-sized farms. Vilsack said that the flow of food products to schools, or universities, or prisons must be maximized, as well as expanding commitments to farmer's markets. Expanding assistance programs to help farmers transition into organic products and creating new meat processing facilities are also important steps to take.
Sen. Hyde-Smith followed up with concerns about a petition filed with the Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission seeking countervailing duties on phosphate fertilizers. Sen. Hyde-Smith asked Vilsack what he would do to ensure farmers have access to critical inputs. Vilsack responded saying he plans to reach out to the Department of Commerce to see what can be done to increase our competitiveness and ensure ample supply of fertilizer in the U.S. Vilsack also assured Sen. Hyde-Smith that he would see if there was anything USDA could do to directly address the issue and help farmers use inputs in the most efficient ways possible.
Market Concentration in Meat Processing Industry
With the pandemic having nearly halted the livestock processing industry, many Senators were eager to know how Vilsack would approach the high market ownership concentration of processing plants. When Sen. Hoeven voiced his concern over that market concentration, Vilsack agreed, saying that there was a need to open more because there were too few. Sen. Grassley put the situation in more concrete terms, noting that “just 4 companies control over 80% of beef processing”. In response, Vilsack said that he would speak about the issue with the Justice Department to fully understand whether anti-trust concerns should be raised. Vilsack also raised the prospect of reforming incentives at USDA to increase the number of processing facilities.
Sen. Braun also took a close look at the problem of market concentration, voicing concerns about the decline in local purchases of food supply. Vilsack again suggested consulting with the Justice Department but also mentioned involving the Federal Trade Commission or the Small Business Administration. Vilsack also mentioned how patent laws may be reformed to benefit farmers and how more money should be allocated to public research because all too often farmers have to license their innovative technology from private sources.
The Biden Administration’s pledge to address climate change issues seemed to concern many Republican members of the committee. Sen. Boozman was among those to question Vilsack on his commitment “to be a voice for the farmers and agricultural businesses”. Vilsack directly responded that he planned to commit to being both a voice for the agricultural workers and to upholding Biden’s climate pledges. There are ways to increase job opportunities in ways that combat climate change, Vilsack argued, such as through bio-based manufacturing, expanding biofuel capabilities, and carbon capture and sequestration.
In a similar vein, Sen. Hoeven asked Vilsack to respond to the demand that any efforts to expand carbon capture be “farmer-friendly.” Vilsack responded that he was aware of the concern that carbon capture programs will primarily benefit third parties. Vilsack then said those programs must primarily benefit farmers because USDA wants to encourage the adoption of such operations. He added that he believed the farm economy was ready for carbon capture.
Vilsack then answered a request from Sen. Stabenow to address the lack of technical assistance farmers are able to receive to become more climate-friendly. Vilsack described that a system, developed with the help of a farmers advisory group, must be created that makes sure conservation programs are (1) designed to incentivize the actions most environmentally valuable and (2) produce results that can be adequately measured.
Awareness of Rural Assistance Programs
Some Senators pointed out the lack of awareness and then the inconvenience of enrolling in many of USDA’s programs. Sen. Bennet, for example, was frustrated with how often rural staff must navigate the federal bureaucracy by themselves to access USDA infrastructure funding. The Senator also asked Vilsack how he would make it easier, and Vilsack responded that through partnerships with local community-building organizations, USDA had to provide the technical assistance necessary to successfully enroll in those programs. A similar answer was offered to Sen. Brown who asked a question about the awareness of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Vilsack said that USDA was in charge of educating people of the programs it offers and that there should be a way to apply only once and enroll in multiple programs, rather than apply individually for each program, often in different offices.