Vilsack still draws skepticism from farmers fighting agribusiness interests

During the Obama administration, Tom Vilsack presided over a USDA that promised to tackle concentration in the agribusiness industry. But after eight years, critics say, there was little evidence of reform. And that has led many to wonder whether there will be any meaningful changes during Vilsack’s current tenure as secretary of agriculture, according to FERN’s latest story, written by Clint Rainey.

“There have been hints that the Biden administration takes the imbalance of power in agriculture seriously, and Vilsack did recently name a senior adviser on fair and competitive markets — effectively an antitrust czar,” Rainey writes. “But this rhetoric of reform has an unsettling sense of déjà vu. After all, Obama vowed during the 2008 campaign to break corporate agriculture’s grip, but his administration ultimately caved under pressure from industry. In fact, giving a pass to Big Ag is considered a key failure of the entire Obama White House, not just the USDA.”

There is no better symbol of that failure of reform — and Vilsack’s role in it — than a series of scandals that stretched from 2009 to 2017 inside a cluster of obscure federal programs known as the commodity checkoffs that farmers and critics say have been captured by corporate lobbyists.

The story recounts a history of recent scandals in the beef, pork, dairy, egg, and soybean checkoff programs. “Hundreds of thousands of misappropriated dollars were involved, and so were accusations of racketeering, illegal lobbying, congressional inquiries, multiple lawsuits, even threats of physical violence,” the story says.

While many of those scandals have faded from public view, they have not been forgotten by the farmers, ranchers, and critics who want this system changed. Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat just appointed to the Senate Agriculture Committee, says that while he believes Vilsack is “committed to transformational change at the USDA,” he also plans, from his new perch, “to exercise oversight and push for reforms to the commodity checkoff programs to be included as part of that change.”

Note: Updates items to correct story byline to Clint Rainey.