Is Obama’s new Ag Sec, Tom Vilsack, green?

Governors of Iowa have a lot of time on their hands - WonketteToday, PEBO officially named former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to run the Department of Agriculture. I have met him on more than one occasion, and he certainly understands that corn ethanol is not the future of biofuels. He also believes in strong action on greenhouse gas emissions.

He is a biotech guy, as Grist makes clear. And he isn’t the greenest Ag guy in the country (see here). But he is more green than not, as Greenwire reports:

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said today he was pleased with the Vilsack selection. The coalition’s members in Iowa have had an easy time working with Vilsack, who has consistently shown support for conservation programs, Hoefner said.

“He is not going to be a revolutionary change agent,” Hoefner said. “But relative to other political names that were suggested, he is more on the change end of the continuum than many other names.”

Here is more background from Greenwire:

Obama described the appointment of the Iowa Democrat as constituting a key part of his energy team, highlighting Vilsack’s experience as an advocate for wind and solar power and biofuels. He announced the appointment at a press conference in Chicago, where he also named Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) Interior secretary.

“Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home,” Obama said. “That is the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet.”

Obama said he would call on Vilsack to ensure that farmlands are used to grow “advanced biofuels,” to implement the farm bill, to look out for farms of all sizes and to pursue more agricultural research.

Both agriculture and environmental groups welcomed the appointment. Vilsack is a political centrist who is sympathetic to large agribusiness operations, but he has supported scaling back some subsidy programs.

As governor of Iowa, he advocated for biofuels, agricultural biotechnology, conservation programs and stronger water quality standards.

“He’s been outspoken on the need for farm subsidy reform and an advocate for conservation programs, which is encouraging,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, once thought a contender for the post, said Vilsack is a “great choice” who would be “right on target” to advance a rural platform with more renewable energy development.

Vilsack’s appointment also adds another strong voice on climate change to Obama’s cabinet. As co-chairman of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on climate change, Vilsack said last summer that the next president should make climate a “signature issue.” A report from the task force calls for the United States to implement a cap-and-trade system and adopt policies encouraging low-carbon development abroad.

Vilsack emerged as the likely front-runner for Agriculture secretary shortly after Obama’s election in November. But speculation about Vilsack all but stopped in late November after he told reporters he hadn’t been contacted by the Obama team and was not a candidate for the job. Asked today what had happened between then and now, Obama declined to address the selection process.

“I don’t know who led him to believe that,” Obama said. “Whoever did was misinformed, because here he stands.”

In newspaper op-ed columns this fall that some farm lobbyists said looked like applications for the job of Agriculture Secretary, Vilsack highlighted the need to put agriculture and renewable energy at the center of plans for both economic development and carbon offsets.

If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack will lead a sprawling agency with an annual budget of more than $90 billion, more than 100,000 employees spread in offices across the country and jurisdiction over farm programs, food aid and rural energy development.

Most of the major farm policy issues are already set in the farm bill, but Vilsack will oversee the implementation of that legislation for the next four years and will potentially have an opportunity to start laying the groundwork for the next round of farm bill debates.

Vilsack follows a recent line of former Midwestern governors at the Agriculture Department. Current Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer had once been governor of North Dakota. The previous Bush appointee, Mike Johanns, was formally governor of Nebraska.

No drastic changes expected

As the former governor of a state with major hog and corn production, Vilsack is not expected to make drastic changes to many farm support programs.

Some sustainable agriculture advocates had hoped Obama’s campaign for change might lead to a more revolutionary pick for USDA.

High profile “foodies” like writer Michael Pollan had a “sustainable six” list of nominees that included Gus Schumacher, a former USDA undersecretary in the Clinton administration. An online petition drive,, pushed candidates like Neil Hamilton, a farm law expert at Drake University. Vilsack was not on either list.

I doubt there is a big distance between him and Obama on Ag issues — and at least PEBO did not pick another senator from a purple state for the job!

Bottom Line: A solid pick, and given how terrific someof PEBO’s other picks are, nothing to lose sleep over.

9 Responses to Is Obama’s new Ag Sec, Tom Vilsack, green?

  1. John Mashey says:

    Although this was started after Vilsack, it’s worth looking at as an examplke of a mid-West state’s worldview, ethanol and all:

    Iowa Energy Independence Plan.

    Note that they they import ~95% of their energy from outside Iowa, and would like to fix that.

  2. Brian M says:


    Thanks for the information and overview. Good information since you have met the man.

    His past sound bites appear heavily corn-ethanol oriented. However, given his past political location, that is probably understandable. If he truly believes that corn-ethanol is not the answer, perhaps his new position will provide him the opportunity to move critically important funding towards other more promising ethanol and bio-energy possibilities.

    We shall see.


  3. RB says:

    I’ve generally be pleased with Obama’s cabinet picks until he picked Vilsack for Ag secretary. I think a ag secretary from a corn state is just wrong. He is certainly not going to be the Secretary of Food as Nicholas Kristof suggested was needed in a recent NYT column. There’s more to farm policy than bio-fuels to fight global warming. Good farm practices can help sequester C02 in the soil. The industrial farming, mono-culture synthetic (fossil fuel) fertilizer, genetically modified plants, factory farming practices used to grow corn is no friend of the environment and worsens global warming. I have slim hope he will change the practices of the agricultural-industrial complex. Also, we need to get rid of GM corn because its puts toxins in everyone food. GM Corn products, with the toxins to kill insects and harm human health, are in most foods because of high fructose corn syrup with turns good food into crap. To fight global warming and for food that’s good for human health, I hope Vilsack moves us from the mono-culture farm industrial farm practices to sustaining poly-culture organic farming practices. He doesn’t sound like someone who knows anything about algae bio-fuels. Joe, you need to learn more about agriculture with respect to global warming.

  4. Tom Laskawy says:

    I’ve been blogging a bunch about Vilsack throughout the selection process at Beyond Green. I definitely perceive him to be far more of a reformer than the progressive food policy folks give him credit for.

    And for those who are concerned about his commitment to ethanol, I pointed out, “Given Obama’s amazing needle-threading instincts with his Veterans Affairs pick Shinseki, along with Chu at DOE and Duncan for Education, it’s hard to believe he would have abandoned them for Ag. I’m not suggesting that Vilsack is necessarily a closet reformer. I’m just saying the politics of the situation might have led Obama to him in a way that doesn’t necessary indicate what Obama’s policy priorities really are.”

    My super-secret hope? That Obama’s reference to “advanced biofuels” will include agrichar or even provide a hint that there may be an upcoming pivot by Obama and Vilsack from ethanol to agrichar. After all, corn husks and the like are prime raw materials for agrichar. That would be corn-based biofuel we could believe in.

  5. Kevin says:

    I’d be interested to read your thoughts regarding Salazar’s nomination to head the Department of Interior.

  6. Wes Rolley says:

    The very thing that RB hopes for, “moving us from the mono-culture farm industrial farm practices” is exactly where Vilsack will fail the test. I was disappointed that Obama did not choose someone like Chuck Hassebrook, Regent: Univ of Nebraska and Ex-Director of the Center for Rural Affairs. In fact, it might have been better to get someone not a politician in this job, just as he got a non-politician for Energy.

    Read Center for Rural Affairs comments on the Vilsack appointment here:

  7. Matt says:

    I felt like PEBO had finally selected someone I couldn’t support for a cabinet position with this pick. I worked in the grassroots of the local foods movement for the last year, and was really hopeful that someone interested in local, organic production would be selected. Vilsack’s history of buddy-buddy with Monsanto and massive expansion of CAFO’s (hogs, specifically) in Iowa is really disappointing, and I hope he leaves those chapters in his past.

    Then again, if I read and expect that Vilsack will be doing what Obama wants according to the site’s stated positions, there’s more hope to be had for Ag.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Kevin — Er, Richardson.

    It’ll be good for American Indians.

  9. Elaine says:

    My hope is that President’s Obama team will do something about the following:
    1) Stop Monsanto from obtaining patents on “all seeds that they have hybrid, to GMO’s and making farmers buy from them only, in other words stop their monopoly and set the farmers free!
    Monsanto has been like a mafia to the average farmer, making them plant and sell only “their” products, and collecting royalties or have sued 1.2 million farmers if they don’t. Which are harming the food chain and causing infertility and other problems with the poorer starving countries, let alone the USA population. Monsanto has literally “black -mailed the average farmer in my opinion, worldwide.
    Here’s quote from Meet the Press that Vilsavk said while chairman of the CFR :
    Mr. Vilsack, like the president-elect, is a strong advocate of combating global warming and developing alternative sources of energy. He was the co-chairman of a task force last year on climate change for the Council on Foreign Relations, which recommended phasing out subsidies for mature biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, as well as reducing tariffs on imported biofuels like Brazilian sugar ethanol.
    So, does he really want to help the USA farmers? And isn’t he acturally against corn-based ethanol? This guy sounds like he’s just another NWO advocate to me.
    Which I wish our President would either tell us he really is too or why would he appoint so many NWO neocons? Its seems his appointments are just more from the Elitest agenda to gain world power and all of our money….to usher in the NAU and a new money system. So more of the gloom and doom leaders may be headed our way for the working class!
    2) I hope Obama’s cabinet member will stop one of the elitests, e.g. Rockefellas from owning big farms and then collecting millions from our own government to NOT FARM IT ! American farmers need to go back to work in this country too. and stop government from importing our foods. Our food chain has been poisoned by corprotoacy and the American people are getting more and more diseased from it.
    Dow was made to stop selling DDT for farmers use in our country and then they sell overseas with no limits or restrictions put on it and its use and abuse by foreign countries, grow our fruits and vegetables and then we eat the stuff loaded with DDT and other toxic chemicals! That makes for a slow kill of not only of our farmers but of our USA population. While Dow gets rich and is still dumping toxic chemicals into Michigan’s lakes and rivers……saying, well, it will be so diluted it won’t harm anyone.
    Here in Michigan we can fish but the DNR tells us don’t eat very many fish caught in our lakes per year, and then gives us the read out of how much Mercury and PCP’s and Dioxins…..there is so much leukemia and infertility and prostrate/breasts cancers in this state you wouldn’t believe it…Plus two headed frogs and on and on .
    3) Stop Monsanto’s patent pending on Pigs. And also, them making the farmers only use their GMO feed to feed the pigs. And then making all pigs sold for them to get an eternity of income.. Farmers all over the world have lost so much money on their geneticlly changed pigs and feed. The pig who eat their GMO feed develop infertility.
    Let alone what happens to the humans who eat the pigs. Farmers want this stopped .
    They know whats best for their lively hood and know that Monsanto is trying to control the world farmers for money. Disregarding the harm done to humans who eat the food.
    Also, our government just gave 1.2 billion dollars to the World Bank to feed the poor and hungry overseas….that was our tax money….and it will be given to Monsanto to feed the poor GMO foods which they anticipate will cause 20,000 million to either get diseased and die from it or will give them infertility so they don’t reproduce more poor.!
    Do you see how sick our world is? And damn it if Obama can’t see it and keeps appointing these Elitest’s who want to carry on their agenda for a NWO…then I hope to hell I don’t have to live much longer.
    4) Also, go into the NASA’s site on Sun spots. The Sun has had no sunspots for almost two years. The electrical field is diminished, the brightness is diminished and it could knock this earth into oblivion, or off axis. Therefore, the global warming is a farse too….cuz countries have seen record level colder weather and record level snow levels…also, the North and South poles ice caps did diminish from 13 ft to 8 ft during the 11 year Solar flares cycle but now the ice caps have returned to the original 13 ft, probably since the sun has been dormant or dead for almost two years. All of what I am saying can be verified if you research it yourselves…..
    Well, we have to have a President who will take charge and not depend on the Elitest’s to tell him how to run this country for their monetary and power benefits…..I don’t know tho, the more people really see and back the Obama compassionate man to do the right thing…and expose the Elitest’s for what they are….then maybe he won’t be in the number of Assassinated Presidents who refused to go along with the Bush’s, the Rockefellas, the Kissinger, the Rothchilds, the Federal Reserve, the Club Rome, the Aspen Institute , the Illuminati’s , the Bilbergers, the UN, the Moslem Brothers, by the way most of our major news stations are owned and run by them as well….to control what we know…..if this blog gets published it will surprise me! And lets hope I don’t get killed for saying it…..if I do, then Bush has taken all our constitutional rights away….(freedom of speech). I’m tired of living knowing all they have been doing to us anyway….some good guy sites are Democratic Now, Confessions of a Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, Kevin Phillips books, NASA, Hugh Ross astronomer, Coast to Coast AM radio, John Lear the truth about 911,, Organic Food, Solari with Catherine Austin Fitts, former Federal regulator, Global