After boasting on the campaign trail about his commitment to family farmers and to supporting America’s rural communities, President-elect Donald Trump has — with less than a week to go until his inauguration — yet to announce a nominee to serve as his Secretary of Agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture is the only federal cabinet agency for which Trump has not selected a nominee, leaving the agency and the millions of farmers it serves in limbo.
“The Secretary of Agriculture is the most important cabinet post for rural America and agriculture,” Dale McCall, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, told ThinkProgress. “We are disappointed this appointment hasn’t been made yet and are hopeful this is not indicative of the agriculture being a low priority.”
During a campaign trip to Iowa in August, Trump declared that “family farms are the backbone of this country,” and promised to “end this war on the American farmer.” But now, even current USDA chief Tom Vilsack is worried Trump may have forgotten about the department.
“The person in charge of this department has some responsibility of ensuring that this country gets fed, that its environment — private working lands and public forests and grasslands — are protected,” Vilsack told E&E News this week. “Well, golly, that’s pretty significant.”
Vilsack announced Friday that he was leaving the department, effective immediately.
USDA has a $140 billion annual budget, manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, and employs over 100,000 people. The department is responsible for supporting the nation’s farmers and agricultural commodity markets, investing in soil conservation and water quality, managing the millions of acres of National Forests, and overseeing food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Despite these responsibilities, Trump’s Transition team has been quiet on the future of this office.
The delay in naming an agriculture secretary is an anomaly in recent history. A USDA nominee has not been announced after December 24 since at least 1980.
Given the critical role for farmers and child nutrition, the position has historically been announced more quickly following an election. President Obama nominated former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack on December 17, 2008, and President George W. Bush announced attorney and former California Sec. on Food & Agriculture Ann Veneman as his nominee on December 20, 2000.
“We trust the search process is taking longer to assure USDA has the right leadership to move forward. We are looking forward to working with policymakers to craft an effective and responsible food and farm bill,” McCall said.
Thus far, the names floated for the secretary post have changed on almost a weekly basis. Sonny Perdue, former Georgia governor who is also a veterinarian; “Butch” Otter of Idaho; Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has received significant attention for remarks about Sec. Clinton and his campaign to return deep fryers and soda machines to public schools; and former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a son of immigrants and farmer on the Central Coast who is currently engaged in a labor dispute with former employees, have all been rumored to be picks.
Trump’s agricultural transition team does not provide much insight into the incoming president’s vision for agricultural policy either. The first USDA landing team member was a former lobbyist for PepsiCo, and for several weeks following their resignation the sole member of the team was the head of an agricultural organization devoted to countering animal welfare regulation. In recent weeks the team has expanded somewhat, adding a former assistant state agriculture commissioner and attorneys with connections to commodity traders and industries, but specific policy ideas remain unclear.
“Any reason to wait this long to nominate a Secretary of Agriculture is unclear,” Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forest programs at National Wildlife Federation, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “The lack of an agency lead creates uncertainty for USDA employees and those who rely on the many things the USDA does to feed people and support working agricultural lands and national forests.”
Approximately 40 percent of the United States’ territory is under some form of agricultural production. In some states the proportion is much higher, providing an economic foundation for rural communities, even as the overall number of farmers has been in decline.
Overall, agricultural production is responsible for roughly 5 percent of GDP, generating over $900 billion in revenue including over $140 billion in exports in 2013. National forests, managed by the USDA, generate over $14 billion in economic activity through recreation and other uses. Approximately 43 million people benefited from nutrition assistance programs in 2016, and food safety inspectors monitor thousands of farms and food processing facilities to protect public health.
The long wait for an agriculture secretary nominee could be the result of a variety of factors, from Trump placing a lack of priority on the position or a failure of potential nominees to pass the vetting process.
One thing is certain, however: Until the Senate Agriculture Committee can hold a hearing for any potential nominee — which now won’t happen until after the inauguration — there will be no Cabinet official steering the ship at USDA.