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Blog Post | December 8, 2020

Tom Vilsack: The Wrong Choice for USDA Secretary

2020 Election/Transition
Tom Vilsack: The Wrong Choice for USDA Secretary

This blog will be continuously updated as new information comes to light.


The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a hugely underappreciated and powerful position. The USDA’s programs and regulations touch policy areas far beyond traditional agriculture, impacting climate change, food policy, immigration, antitrust issues, rural development, and racial justice. Biden’s choice to lead the USDA must be ready and willing to employ the USDA’s power and pursue the following policy goals.

  • Food Policy: Biden’s pick for USDA secretary will have an enormous role in responding to multiple food crises facing our country, and must aggressively utilize the position to promote food security and nutrition, fix broken supply chains, and help farmers cope with worsening climate realities.
  • Climate Change: Biden’s USDA Secretary has several avenues to address climate change at once. They can incentivize farmers to adopt strategies to better preserve soil quality, remove carbon pollution from the air, and save water and energy. The USDA Secretary also has direct power over conserving our public lands. Biden’s USDA Secretary should utilize the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI) to research how climate change affects agricultural production and use the Office of Energy and Environmental Policy (OEEP) to coordinate these efforts.
  • Rural Development: The USDA’s Rural Development Office is the main federal agency in charge of promoting rural development, providing loans and financial support to farmers, small businesses, and individuals in an effort to promote economic development in rural areas. Biden’s USDA Secretary must commit to rebuilding rural America through grant programs, increasing rural infrastructure and housing, and promoting rural small businesses.
  • Antitrust/Competition: Biden’s USDA Secretary must decisively reject corporate consolidation in the agriculture sector. Instead of providing subsidies to the most powerful agribusinesses, the USDA must refocus its grant programs to ensure they are working to promote and encourage young and small family farms. 
  • Immigration: Farm workers are disproportionately Latinx and immigrant workers. They are vital to our functioning economy. A Biden USDA Secretary must ensure immigrant farm workers receive proper protection and access to government programs and should support a path to citizenship.
  • Racial Justice: Long referred to by black farmers as “the last plantation,” the USDA has systematically discriminated against Black farmers. Biden’s USDA Secretary will have the ability to end these wrongs by implementing solutions to discrimination across all offices to ensure BIPOC farmers and rural communities are receiving fair access to credit, food assistance, and other forms of support.


Whitewashing of the USDA’s history of racial discrimination. 

  • At the end of his tenure as Obama’s USDA Secretary, Vilsack claimed he ushered in a “new era for civil rights” at the USDA, overseeing a sudden increase in the number in black farmers. But an investigation by The Counter found that Vilsack’s statements were at best extremely misleading, and at worst completely false. The investigation found the following: 
    • Vilsack’s USDA foreclosed on black farmers who had made discrimination complaints, threw out new complaints, and misrepresented how many complaints were filed. 
    • Black farmers received fewer loan dollars than they from President Bush’s USDA.
    • Vilsack’s USDA manipulated census data to whitewash the agency’s civil rights record.
    • Vilsack’s USDA failed to adequately compensate farmers who were owed settlement money under Pigford v. USDA, a lawsuit brought against the agency claiming it had discriminated against black farmers. 
  • Civil rights leader Lawrence Lucas said of Vilsack’s nomination: “He has inflicted enough suffering. Lives and land lost that will never be returned, not to mention wealth that is forever gone from a race of people. This brings tears to my eyes.”
  • Farm groups spoke directly to Vilsack when he was leading USDA about the rampant discirmination faced by black farmers, but he took no action.
  • Under Vilsack’s leadership, women were relegated to lower-level positions, and women in the Forst Service made allegations of assault and rape.
  • Under Vilsack, the USDA’s Office of General Counsel “actively fought to dismiss employee’s complaints” about discrimination in the department.
  • Lawrence Lucas’s account of discrimination at the USDA: 

“I saw many things in my years at USDA. I’ve seen racial epithets written on the walls. I’ve seen employees get monkey dolls as an award. I knew of an incident where a white person held a hangman’s noose in front a Black employee. When the Office of General Counsel investigated it, they publicly said that employee was a ‘good employee.’”

Firing of Shirley Sherrod:

  • Vilsack oversaw the firing of Shirley Sherrod a Black Agriculture Department official who was the target of a right-wing media smear campaign. 
  • Soon after Sherrod’s firing, Vilsack asked her to return and take on the burden herself of addressing the USDA’s discriminatory history

Failed promises to take on corporate consolidation and support family farmers:

  • Despite a commitment to stand up to big ag companies, Vilsack was cozy with agribusiness corporations whose control of the market harmed family farmers. He even appointed Monsanto-connected executives to serve under him.
  • Under Vilsack, the USDA rolled back regulations on genetically modified foods that corporate agribusiness like Monsanto lobbied hard against.
  • Vilsack failed to deliver on GIPSA rules, antitrust regulatory policies intended to support independent meat packers struggling to compete against the monopolistic control of corporations like Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson Foods. Vilsack’s sluggish enforcement of GIPSA rules failed to protect farmers who faced price discrimination, abuse of market power, and intimidation from the corporate giants. 

Exploiting government experience to earn millions working for big ag

  • After leaving government, he took a lucrative job at Dairy Management Inc. where he earns $1 million per year, the highest of all executives at the company.
  • Dairy Management Inc takes money from the USDA checkoff program funded by family farmers, which has been criticized for essentially being a slush fund for corporate agribusinesses.
  • Dairy Management Inc. promotes dairy products and has come under fire for paying its executives millions in a year in which over 1,500 dairy farms closed nationwide. A 2016 CDC study found that suicide rates among local dairy farmers are much higher than other occupations

Failing to protect food chain workers

  • Vilsack rolled back USDA oversight of slaughterhouses, releasing a plan that would decrease the number of federal inspectors required at each factory. This plan received harsh criticism from worker advocates.

Cozying up to Big Pharma

  • In February 2020, Vilsack took a job with the notorious Purdue Pharmaceuticals, running an internal investigation of the company’s illegal promotion of opioids. 
2020 Election/Transition

More articles by Miranda Litwak

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