Vislack Returns as Ag Secretary, Vows to Right Past Injustices

Image: USDA/Tom Witham

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

While some of President Biden’s cabinet nominees have had tumultuous hearings this week, but Tom Vilsack was easily confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture yesterday.

Vilsack held the same post for the entirety of the  Obama administration and spent the interim years working as a dairy industry CEO.

During his confirmation hearing, he noted that things are different than his initial confirmation 12 years ago and that “the pandemic, racial justice and equity and climate change must be our priorities.” Black farmers and civil rights advocates will be waiting to see if Vilsack lives up to that promise: during his last term, the USDA distorted data to make it look like Black farming was on the rise, when in fact little had changed, and Black farmers received a lower share of loan dollars than under President Bush. 

Why This Matters: Farming and agriculture are intertwined in the climate solution, and the Biden administration has promised to make them central to its climate plans. The administration has also made big promises on racial equality.

As the New York Times noted earlier this year, both systemic issues intersect on Black farms.

  • The share of farms owned by African Americans has shrunk significantly over the past century to less than 2 percent today.
  • There’s an opportunity to take on both challenges simultaneously by investing in Black farms and working to correct decades of discrimination at USDA.

As Vilsack’s next round of leadership begins, there’s trust to rebuild as he prioritizes climate and justice as promised. 

 

The racial farm gap: The number of Black farmers in the U.S. was highest in 1920 at nearly 1 million. Decades of racism, violence, and discriminatory lending and landownership practices decimated Black farms nationwide. 

  • Now, that number is closer to 45,000, only 2% of the nation’s farmers, compared to 95% of American farmers who are white.
  • Black farmers make less than $40,000 on about one-quarter the acreage of white farmers, who bring in over $190,000 annually. 

Farming as a climate solution: Agriculture amounts to about a quarter of total U.S. emissions, but methods like regenerative farming could transition farming from a net carbon emitter to a carbon sink. The USDA has the power to create policies that incentivize climate-smart agriculture. Paying farmers for benefits they provide beyond the food they grow — soil health, carbon sequestration, protecting pollinators — would put a dollar value on the many ways farms can help solve the climate crisis and provide a financial boost for farmers emerging from the pandemic.

 

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