Tom Vilsack: Secretary of Agriculture talks about issues facing farmers and his plans for

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Feb. 24 Tom Vilsack took the oath of office as the 32nd Secretary of Agriculture.

It’s Vilsack’s second time as chief of the USDA. He previously served eight years in the same role in the Obama administration.

Vilsack, 70, is also the former governor of Iowa, and most recently was president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a dairy trade and lobbying group.

On Monday, Vilsack sat down with Capital Press reporter Sierra Dawn McClain for a wide-ranging interview. The text has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital Press: On Feb. 24, President Biden issued an executive order requiring you to investigate agricultural supply chains. What do you hope to accomplish through this?

Tom Vilsack: I think, first and foremost, we want to make sure we build back the supply chain so that it’s more resilient in the event of a large-scale disruption similar to COVID.

Secondly, I think there’s a reason for us to take a look at the supply chain from an equity perspective.

I think the third thing is a competitive and open markets aspect. If the supply chain is concentrated in the hands of a few, it makes it more difficult for those selling to get the best price for whatever it is they’re growing or raising. That’s particularly true in animal protein. How do we enlarge, encourage competition, create better price discovery?

CP: That leads into my next question. You’ve talked a lot about the need for price discovery in the livestock sector. Can you break down how you plan to address lack of price transparency?

Vilsack: Well, it would start in taking a look at our processing facilities across board — beef, poultry, pork — and asking: Are there additional market opportunities we could take advantage of? That could happen one of three ways.

One, can we help smaller processing facilities stay in business? There are programs as a result of COVID relief to get resources to small processing facilities that would allow them to stay in business (and) to be able to pay the costs, for example, of overtime they had to incur.

CP: Would that funding come exclusively from COVID relief?

Vilsack: It’s coming from COVID relief resources Congress has provided.

… Secondly, Congress has also directed us to take a look at ways in which we might facilitate interstate sale of product, across state lines.

To do that, state-inspected enterprises would need inspections to be equivalent to the federal inspection system. That may be expensive. It may require additional equipment (and) space. Can USDA, through COVID relief and other resources, provide assistance with that?

The third piece is a much larger-scale effort, going back to resources provided in the American Rescue Plan. It’s the ability to create a fund that would allow USDA to approach state governments, officials, private investors and others, to say, “What if we could provide you X number of dollars towards the capital cost of a new (or retrofitted) processing facility that would increase your capacity?”

Part of what we’re doing is in that space. The other part is regulatory. We’re in the process of evaluating the state of regulations we inherited. Once we’ve finished, we may (strengthen) various aspects of our enforcement mechanisms.

CP: Can you give me an example?

Vilsack: Well, in 2016, we had a series of rules relative to the poultry industry under the Packers and Stockyards Act which the Trump administration basically froze. Are those still relevant? Do they need to be modified? Those kinds of things.

CP: You talked about consolidation, how a few giants like Tyson hold all the sway. But can you explain how new small-scale processors will realistically compete? It seems like they serve different markets. Or are you planning on scaling up existing processors?

Vilsack: I think it’s potentially a combination of both. But I think you walk before you run.

At the end of the day, the goal is to create more resiliency.

It’s also about competitive price. If you have one place to sell your product, you take the price you get. If you have two places, you can at least compare, right? If you’ve got three or four places, well then, you’re really in the driver’s seat. Right now, from the producer standpoint, the view is: “We don’t have enough capacity.” I think producers are looking to USDA and others to address that.

CP: Sticking with the livestock topic, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently announced it’s pulling back the radio frequency identification, or RFID, ear tag mandate. That may be temporary, so I’d like to know your longer-term plan, if you have one.

Vilsack: Well, I want to point out, I’ve been on the job for about a month. (He laughed.) You’re asking a lot of questions the answers to which will evolve over time.

Let me just say this about the tag system. Traceability is important. It’s important in terms of our ability to contain disease, limit damage to the market (and) be able to respond to demands of customers overseas. Whatever we do, we’ve gotta have reliable traceability. All right?

And I think, frankly, as time goes on, more consumers are going to want to know where their food came from.

Now, what is the right system to address the concerns of some that feel the government may have too much information? I don’t know. We were trying to strike a balance with the tag system. We’ll take a look at it.

CP: Let’s move on to dairy. The Dairy Margin Coverage Program is based on the national price of milk and average cost of feed, but Western U.S. dairy farmers often have higher input and labor costs than farmers in other regions. Do you have plans for programs that consider dairy farmers in the West?

Vilsack: I think one way you address the needs of Western dairy farmers is to create new and better markets (and) maximize trading opportunities.

It’s also about innovation, creating new products in which milk (and milk ingredients) can be used.

We just basically changed the margin protection program to become the margin coverage program, and I think, for the most part, it’s working pretty well. At this point, I don’t have any particular plans to change things. But, I mean, obviously, if the dairy industry approaches us and asks for adjustments, we’ll be open to that.

CP: OK. Let’s talk trade. On what specific issues will you be working with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai to negotiate on trade with China? What’s happening with the phase 1 deal, and what’s your next step?

Vilsack: Well, the next step is the one I already took, which was to reach out to the Chinese ag minister and have a conversation with him.

I was pleased the conversation was cordial, that there was an acknowledgment of the importance of the phase 1 agreement. But we still have issues to resolve.

They’re not buying as much as they promised, but they’ve increased their purchases significantly. What we want to do is maintain those purchases (and) continue the relationship.

The relationship with China is highly complex. In some cases, we are competitors, in some cases, cooperators. In some cases, we are seller and buyer and it’s a mercantile relationship.

In ag trade, it’s a trade relationship. But it can be impacted by national security issues, by something happening in the South China Sea, etc. All of that may play on China’s attitude about purchasing. And those are things the Department of Agriculture doesn’t have control over. What we attempt to do is make sure they know we value their market (and) let them know they can rely on the stability, safety and supply from our market.

CP: Changing topics — in the Western U.S., organic is a growing sector. What will your agency do to support organic producers?

Vilsack: Well, first of all, we’ll have a senior adviser or some high-level individual who’s charged with overseeing the organic program.

Secondly, we need to protect the brand. You don’t get high value unless people think there’s something about organic that they like better than conventional and they’re willing to pay more for it.

We’ll also, through the regulatory process, make sure people aren’t trying to get product in under false pretenses. We have friends in foreign governments (whose) standards for organic may be different than our standards. We need to make sure their standards are equal to or better than U.S. standards if they sell here.

Then we’ll look for ways in which we can create an easier pathway to obtaining organic status.

CP: One follow-up: Have you already appointed someone to that high-level organic position, or are you looking?

Vilsack: We’re looking. We’re in the process of trying to identify someone.

CP: OK. On a similar note, do you plan on tapping any Western U.S. ag experts for potential high-level leadership in USDA?

Vilsack: Our leadership team at USDA will be diverse in a number of different definitions of diverse, including geographic. We’ll be looking for people who understand and appreciate specifically Western agriculture.

CP: Moving on — I know you’ve been following the recent droughts and fires in the West. The U.S. Forest Service is under USDA. What can your agency do to improve management of national forests so they aren’t as susceptible to wildfires?

Vilsack: It’s a function of resources. We have to do a better job of managing our forests, and that means getting resources from Congress. And in the president’s budget, as it unfolds, I think people will see we’re going to make a major commitment to increase resources available for forest management.

That’s not going to solve the problem today. It’s going to take years and years and years. In the meantime, we’ll use the best science available to contain as many fires as we can.

CP: OK. Assuming for a moment you get the funding, what tools will you use in forest management? Can…

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