How COVID Recovery and Climate Could Shape Ag Under Biden Administration
As President Joe Biden was sworn in on Wednesday, the 46th president made calls for unity and less divide.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus -- rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” said Biden during his inaugural address.
Swiftly after being sworn in, the president got to work, signing a series of 15 executive actions on day one and reversing his predecessor’s orders on items like immigration and climate change.
From the White House to the USDA, once confirmed, the agency will have a familiar face with the return of Tom Vilsack, bringing with him eight years of experience.
“I think the biggest thing is hitting the ground running on day one,” says Karla Thieman, vice president with The Russell Group.
Several farm groups sent a letter last week and called on the Senate Ag Committee to immediately confirm Vilsack as the next Secretary of Agriculture. That included calls for urgency from American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
“If anything, he's even more qualified than he was before, and he's always been a very qualified candidate in that position,” says Zippy Duvall, president of AFBF. “It's best we get him in the seat so we can go ahead and start working on the issues that are facing us, especially the pandemic and trade.”
Biden’s Top Priorities
One Washington insider thinks two main priorities will be pushed in the initial days in office.
“I think there's probably two top priorities, first is coronavirus and the recovery post COVID,” says Thieman. “The second item is probably combating climate change and farmers being a part of the solution for us to combat climate change both domestically and internationally.
Thieman previously served as Vilsack’s chief of staff at USDA. She says Vilsack understands the workings of USDA, which is a major bonus for an agency needing to tackle several issues facing farmers and ranchers.
“I have a unique vantage point into how he approaches the job,” says Thieman. “He used the position as almost like he is the governor to rural America. And I think he will use all of the resources in the large footprint that USDA has at his disposal. When you think about it, there is no other federal agency that has a presence in every single county of the United States in the way that USDA does.”
National Farmers Union (NFU) president Rob Larew thinks Vilsack’s experience as a legislator will also bode well for agriculture.
“I think that combination of experience on the job, knowing the issues, is really going to mean that the transition is hopefully going to be one that seems pretty seamless and moves quickly,” says Larew.
Thieman says that knowledge could help USDA get creative with COVID responses, possibly using the agency’s large footprint with vaccine distribution and education in rural America.
From COVID’s impact on the food supply, to those having difficulty purchasing food, Thieman knows the incoming Biden-Harris administration
“There is a hunger crisis happening at the same time,” she says. “I know it’s something [former Agriculture Secretary] Perdue was working on as well through the food box program. I think Tom Vilsack is going to double down and try to figure out what can we do to help those who are struggling who are food insecure during this time?”
From COVID recovery to tackling climate issues, a Biden presidency is expected to make climate policy a priority.
“He will be an advocate to make sure that there is not a heavy-handed regulatory approach when it comes to farmers and agriculture,” says Thieman.
In an interview with the storm lake times this week, Vilsack said the significant shift toward conservation in agriculture could include more funding for existing programs like conservation reserve program (CRP).
And for one Nebraska corn grower, he thinks engaging with the incoming administration will be vital in crafting conservation programs that work.
“I think one of the key things we need to see is to make sure that, that we're working with them to help them understand the practices we already have in place to make sure we're not punishing those that that have been working long-term,” says Brandon Hunnicutt, a farmer in Nebraska who also sits on the the National Corn Board. “Let's say it's no till it says cover crops, or farmers in Nebraska trying to do better on irrigation practices. We don't want to punish those that are already doing good.”
Hunnicutt thinks a blanket approach isn’t the answer—instead, it needs to be tailored to specific crops and production practices. He also wants to see the programs be voluntary, an approach Thieman thinks the Biden-Harris administration will take.
“From the government's perspective, mandatory practices are not likely to happen in in the near term,” adds Thieman.
For National Farmers Union, it’s vital farmers stay engaged.
“I think the approach that they are going to take is one where agriculture and farmers in particular, have a seat at the table,” says Larew. “For farmers, who we know are the ones being impacted by the increased kind of frequency and the type of disaster that they're facing out there, that they're the ones who are feeling the effects of climate change right now.”
Larew says active dialogue will be key moving forward.
“If we're talking about programs, whether it's trying to talk about soil health and sequestering carbon, whether it's talking about creating carbon markets, that farmers can truly participate in any of those programs,” he says. “If it isn't going to work for farmers, it's not ultimately going to be worth it for any kind of climate mitigation.”
Vilsack said last week he’s looking at tapping into Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to incentivize climate-smart farming practices, something Thieman thinks Vilsack will detail soon.
“I think you will hear about that when he gets confirmed in the Senate,” she says. “I think he'll probably talk about utilizing all of the tools at his disposal, much like on the coronavirus recovery.”
CCC was a tool former President Trump’s USDA used to pay farmers for COVID relief and tariff aid, but a tool not available last time Vilsack was in office.
The big-ticket item is going to be paying farmers for those practices that sequester carbon or avoid admittance of greenhouse gases. And, and the ccc is set up to do that,” says Thieman. “There are not some of the restrictions on the CCC that were previously there when he was Secretary, so that he can have the ability to actually utilize the CCC as a tool to help pay farmers for those practices.”
From crafting a farm bill to COVID recovery, a Biden-Harris presidency has several heavy lifts, which includes his call for unity.
"That's not just with our neighbors and so forth, but it is this urban and rural, it is issues around racial equity and issues around all of the things that we think we see as our differences with each other,” says Larew. “That's not only true in agriculture, but it's true in every industry, and it's true throughout the country.”
Bridging the gaps, while unifying the rural and urban divide, are all priorities at the Biden-Harris White House.