Hurting Farmers Look to Biden’s USDA Pick to Fix Mounting Woes

  • Heitkamp, Vilsack, Fudge, Bustos possible picks for secretary
  • Agriculture industry hit by pandemic, trade wars, bad weather

President-elect Joe Biden, set to inherit the nation’s distressed farm economy, now faces choosing the right candidate for agriculture secretary to address the industry’s economic setbacks stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and trade disputes.

“That next secretary needs to be willing and able to affect some longer-term change, rather than just short-term Band-Aids, and try to fix the farm economy for years to come, rather than months to come,” said Mike Stranz, the National Farmers Union’s vice president of advocacy.

Democratic contenders for the role include former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Reps. Marcia Fudge (Ohio) and Cheri Bustos (Ill.).

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The future secretary will succeed Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia, whom President Donald Trump chose in 2017.

Farmers and ranchers have been struggling from financial blows as Covid-19 outbreaks shuttered restaurants, schools, and meat-processing plants. Agriculture producers were forced to cull their herds and abandon crops in the fields.

Trump’s trade wars hurt farmers reliant on foreign markets, although the administration attempted to mitigate the damage with government subsidies. Hurricanes and other extreme weather—stark reminders of climate change —have devastated farms.

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, speaks during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in 2018.

Agriculture Secretary Shortlist

A Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee member’s Democratic staffer described Heitkamp as a good pick.

Heitkamp, North Dakota’s first woman senator who served from 2013 to 2019, sat on the Agriculture Committee, helping to pass two farm bills. She previously sponsored legislation that would establish a fund to promote agricultural commodity exports, assist farmers hurt by tariffs, and support opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers, among other bills.

She lost her seat to Republican Kevin Cramer, a Trump loyalist, and moved on to address U.S. rural issues as a founding board member of the One Country Project.

When asked to respond to speculation about being on the agriculture secretary shortlist, she said, “I will do everything in my power to assist President-Elect Joe Biden in Building Better Back and Restoring the Soul of Our Nation.”

Two-time Iowa Gov. Vilsack led the Agriculture Department for eight years under President Barack Obama‘s administration. During that time, the agency focused on conservation, expanded agricultural trade, and opportunities for rural communities. Discrimination cases by minorities against the department were also resolved.

He’s now the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Vilsack declined to comment.

Fudge, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, often bucked the Trump administration’s attempts to narrow federal food assistance requirements as leader of the Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee. She’s confronted Republicans over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provisions during farm bill negotiations, and has tried to address racial inequities in agriculture.

A liberal Democrat, she’s a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Fudge’s team declined to comment.

Agriculture Committee member Bustos is the only Midwesterner in House Democratic leadership. Following a tough election for the party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairwoman announced in a Monday letter sent to the Democratic Caucus that she won’t run for the position again.

Bustos, a centrist, represents a heavily rural district. She’s sponsored bills to invest in agriculture research (H.R. 4714) and boost exports by small- and medium-sized enterprises.

When asked for a response, a spokesperson for the lawmaker said, with votes still being counted across the country, Bustos remains focused on making sure front-line members in uncalled races have the support they need.

Farm Group Policy Asks

The next agriculture secretary must be a “strong one,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, describing the ideal choice as “a good leader, a good communicator, one that’s willing to work with the people of our industry,” preferably with a background in agriculture.

Duvall’s group hopes the Biden administration focuses on regulatory changes, improvements to programs covered by the farm bill, rural broadband expansion, and farm labor, along with greater market and trade access.

“Our farmers, they don’t want government checks. They want to get their income from the marketplace,” Duvall said. “The only way for us to do that is to be able to trade with the rest of the world.”

He added that “the biggest thing” the Trump administration did was acknowledge farmers and ranchers, as “it’s been difficult over several administrations to actually get a seat at the table.”

Stranz said the Trump administration also started investigating meat supply chain issues brought to light during the pandemic—a move the president-elect’s team should follow with concrete actions.

However, the Biden administration should put in place a “much-improved trade agenda” of its own, particularly with China, and turn its attention toward combating climate change with farmers’ help, Stranz said.

The nation’s farm economy will also need a rebound, as “the figures are pretty stark looking at the net farm income for 2020,” with 40% of it expected to stem from government payments, Stranz said, adding that the next administration must “look at some ways to address what’s possibly a pretty significant shortfall for farmers next year.”

The Biden administration’s agency review team for the Agriculture Department consists of Robert Bonnie of Duke University and the Bipartisan Policy Center, LaQuita Honeysucker of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Andrea Delgado of the United Farm Workers Foundation, Sanah Baig of the Good Food Institute, and 13 others.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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