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When Tom Vilsack began his first term as agriculture secretary in 2009, IATP lifted up a series of challenges and opportunities for the department, urging him to follow in the path of another Iowan at USDA, Henry Wallace. We wrote: “the central challenges once again are markets run amok and the unsustainable farming practices they promote.” We pointed out “the real winners in the system are a tiny handful of agribusiness companies, who profit from the boom bust cycle and whose anti-competitive control of the market hurts farmers and consumers alike.” 

Vilsack’s eight-year journey at USDA left these core challenges largely unchanged, and then, he went to work as a lobbyist for the big dairies. In 2017, we posed eight questions for new Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. We asked what he would do to fix markets and ensure farmers of all sizes and types receive a fair return, what he would do about excess corporate control and antitrust concerns within agriculture, and how he would help farmers respond to the climate crisis. Perdue largely refused to acknowledge the problems in the market, suppressed research on climate change, and went about gutting programs, weakening agencies and dismantling the capacity of the USDA itself.  

Today, Vilsack will appear again before the Senate Agriculture Committee for another nomination hearing. If confirmed he will face many of the same longstanding challenges we posed in 2009 and 2017 but in a new context. We are coming off a dramatic year for the food system operating during the pandemic. The risks to the food supply and harm to workers and farmers of allowing global meat companies to control much of a very concentrated meat processing system came into full view. The climate crisis has become even more urgent, and behind it, new political momentum, including from rural leaders calling for action. We are also deeply divided as a country, where racist, right wing reactionaries stormed the nation’s Capitol just one month ago.  

In announcing Vilsack’s nomination, President Biden emphasized the need to rebuild the capacity of the USDA after Perdue’s tenure. Vilsack certainly knows the department well and should be able to act immediately to rebuild basic capacity. Though, hearing more from Vilsack about how he hopes to rebuild should be part of his nomination hearing. Vilsack’s own record on protecting scientific integrity was far from sterling during his eight-year run, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last week, PEER cited Vilsack’s actions to hold back publications on controversial topics such as neonicotinoid pesticides and a 2016 Inspector General report which found more than 120 USDA scientists reported their research had been altered or suppressed.   

The agriculture secretary can’t set new policy. But USDA does implement policy and can influence it in ways good and bad. The agriculture secretary can also advocate in front of Congress for changes they would like to see. Congress is scheduled to author a new Farm Bill in 2023 and will be looking for USDA input in the next few years. 

Looking back, our fundamental questions about agriculture markets and the climate crisis for Vilsack in 2009 and Perdue in 2017 are still relevant for today’s hearing. In addition, we pose a handful of more specific questions:  

1. There is growing concern that too few companies control the agriculture economy  from seeds to beef. Agribusiness consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes. Consolidation obscures ownership to the point that farmers and consumers frequently have far fewer options in the market than it appears.  

Q. What needs to be done at USDA to ensure fair markets for farmers and address agribusiness consolidation?  

Q. Secretary Perdue diminished a critical agency focused on ensuring fair markets and protecting farmer rights, the Grains, Inspection, Packers and Stockyards (GIPSA), from a stand-alone agency to operating under the Agriculture Marketing Service. What role should GIPSA play and should GIPSA be returned as a stand-alone agency within USDA? 

2. The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our meat production system, for farmers who had to euthanize animals, for meatpacking workers in large plants exposed to COVID-19, and for consumers and restaurants. Concentrating meat production within a handful of very large plants has left the supply chain vulnerable to disruption, whether from a pandemic or extreme climate event. In Minnesota, small-scale meat processors were having trouble meeting demand even before the pandemic. When the big plants had to slow or close, they were overrun — some are now already booked into 2022. A survey of Minnesota farmers by Minnesota Farmers Union, the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association found that limited capacity of small-scale meat processing is limiting their farm business.  

Q. What do we need to do to support more (and scale-up) small and mid-sized meat processors and farmers selling to those processors to build more resilience in the system? 

3. Climate risk is currently not incorporated as part of crop insurance or USDA farm credit programs. Climate-resilient finance will help farmers and ranchers adapt their operations and production practices to climate change trends over the short, medium and long term.  

Q. What types of reforms should we consider for crop insurance and farm credit to respond to rising climate risk and to promote more climate resilience? 

4. There is growing recognition that for farmers to transition toward practices and systems that both mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, the transition must work for the farm financially. Secretary Vilsack has talked about support for agriculture carbon offsets, including a carbon bank. But popular conservation programs that already support climate resilient farming, like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, are too underfunded to meet farmer demand. Simply increasing funding for these proven programs and making them more widely accessible would bring immediate climate benefits. There is a host of troubling questions about the viability of agriculture-based carbon markets. 

Q. To respond to the urgency of the climate crisis, isn’t the most efficient use of public dollars to deepen investments in existing conservation programs with which farmers are familiar, rather than provide huge public subsidy to launch a risky, uncertain carbon market offset program? 

5. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is losing acres, with only 22 million acres in the program as of September. The loss in acreage is due, at least in part, to the reduction of payments to farmers. While we saw some payment increases from USDA in December, it’s not enough. Last year, former House Agriculture Committee Chair Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson introduced legislation to expand CRP acreage to 50 million acres and recognize the carbon sequestration from the program.  

Q. What should be the target number of acres in CRP, and how do we get there? 

The challenges of our food system are deep, complex and interrelated. In 2009, we wrote, “We must directly take on price volatility and uncompetitive markets in agriculture — not just mitigate the effects. And we must transition to a more environmentally-sustainable farming system. We must recognize that the chaos in agriculture markets and our environmental goals are linked and must be tackled together, not separately.” This is the challenge for not just Vilsack, but for Congress and for all of us trying to make sure we don’t look back in 10 years and wonder why little has changed.  

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