President Biden chose Xochitl Torres Small, the granddaughter of migrant farmworkers, as his nominee for Agriculture deputy secretary, the second-ranking post at the USDA, announced the White House on Wednesday. Torres Small has served as USDA undersecretary for rural development since October 2021.
In some of its final actions of the year, the Senate approved by voice vote on Thursday the nominations of Doug McKalip as chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. trade representative’s office and Jose Esteban as Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.
On a voice vote on Wednesday, senators approved the nomination of Alexis Taylor, Oregon state agriculture director for the past six years, as USDA undersecretary for trade. Taylor has said her priorities would be opening foreign markets to U.S. farm exports and the diligent enforcement of trade agreements.
Despite having the support of the Senate Agriculture Committee, two Biden nominees to the Agriculture Department must wait until mid-November, at the earliest, for a Senate vote.
Asia is brimming with opportunities to win lifelong consumers of U.S. food and ag exports, said President Biden’s nominee for USDA undersecretary for trade on Thursday. At a Senate nomination hearing, Alexis Taylor said her priorities would be opening foreign markets to U.S. goods and the diligent enforcement of the rules governing trade agreements.
Nearly a year after Tom Vilsack became agriculture secretary, his corps of sub-cabinet executives, the eight undersecretaries who oversee each wing of the USDA's activities, is just half filled. The White House has yet to announce candidates for two of the posts, and two other nominations await Senate action.
Declaring "there is no place at USDA for discrimination," University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger told senators on Wednesday that she would build "a civil rights culture" at the USDA if confirmed as assistant secretary for civil rights. At the same confirmation hearing, Chavonda Jacobs-Young said she would be an advocate for advanced technology, such as gene editing, if confirmed as undersecretary for research.
The White House is currently vetting possible nominees for key sub-cabinet positions at the USDA, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a teleconference on Thursday. "I suspect we will be seeing nominees soon on some of those vacancies."
President Biden's nominee to oversee the 193 million-acre national forest system said on Thursday that he would focus on wildfire management and prevention and on eradicating racial and sexual discrimination at the Forest Service. "If confirmed, I will be the person responsible for providing leadership to ensure that everyone is treated fairly," said Homer Wilkes, a 41-year USDA employee.
The USDA's climate mitigation initiatives will be built on a simple rule: "If they don't work for producers and landowners, they're not going to work for the climate," said Robert Bonnie, the Biden nominee to run the USDA's crop subsidy and land stewardship programs, on Thursday. "Making sure we get that right is going to be a high priority."
Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said the Senate Agriculture Committee is making progress on stocking the USDA with President Biden's choices for sub-cabinet posts. The committee advanced two nominations to the floor on Tuesday, creating the possibility of confirmation votes before the Senate adjourns for its summer recess.
Biden nominee Jennifer Moffitt said she would strengthen USDA rules to give farmers more muscle in dealing with meat processors if she is confirmed as agriculture undersecretary for marketing. "Should I be confirmed, I do commit to supporting trade, to supporting fair marketplace practices," she told senators on Thursday.
The Biden administration plans a thorough review of recent EPA decisions involving the federal mandate to mix corn ethanol and other biofuels into gasoline, said Michael Regan, the White House nominee to run the agency, at his Wednesday confirmation hearing. "The RFS is definitely a priority for this administration."
President Biden's nominee for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said he would arrive at the USDA with a "serious focus on getting stuff done quickly," considering the many challenges facing the department, from the pandemic to racial equity and rural development.
The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on Feb. 2 for Tom Vilsack, President Biden's nominee for agriculture secretary, said the panel's Democratic and Republican leaders on Wednesday.
Kevin Shea, a longtime USDA official, became acting agriculture secretary with the arrival of the Biden administration on Wednesday, said a USDA spokesman amid the appointment of several new officials. The White House also announced a freeze on new federal regulations.
Three nominations for senior USDA posts overseeing research, food safety, and civil rights died with the 115th Congress on Wednesday, and the path forward for those nominations in the two-year session that opened on Thursday is unclear.
The Senate Agriculture Committee cleared three USDA nominees for a floor vote on Wednesday, but significant Democratic opposition could prevent a confirmation vote this year on Naomi Earp, President Trump’s pick to be the agency’s assistant secretary for civil rights.