Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack Confirmed to Lead USDA for Second Time


Via Flickr

Maxwell Bernstein | February 24, 2021

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was confirmed by the senate in a 92-7 vote on Tuesday to head the Department of Agriculture for a second time, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack discussed his plans to meet climate change goals, food insecurity, supply chain problems, and address inequalities that Black farmers face. “I will ensure all programming is equitable and work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and People of Color,” Vilsack said. “I will build the most diverse team in the Department’s history, one that looks like America, and will extend that commitment across all USDA agencies and offices.”

Out of the seven senators who opposed Vilsack, 6 included Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator of Vermont also opposed Vilsack.

According to The Hill, Sanders said, “I like Tom and I’ve known him for years. I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture…I think he’ll be fine, but not as strong as I would like.”

Tom Vilsack’s USDA Secretary Nomination Passes Committee, Moves to Full Senate


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Nicole Welle | February 4, 2021

The Senate agriculture committee approved former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination as U.S. agriculture secretary Tuesday and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are expected to join Democratic Senators in confirming Vilsack’s nomination. Once confirmed, Vilsack will begin his second tour as agriculture secretary, a position he previously held from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. His position under Biden will come with the responsibility of leading the department during a global pandemic that has increased the need for food assistance, and he will be tasked with urging the agriculture industry to prioritize combatting climate change as Biden’s nominee, according to a Des Moines Register article.

Vilsack fielded multiple questions about climate change and biofuels while the Senate agriculture committee considered his nomination. As an Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst took an interest in his views on ethanol and biofuel production. She asked if he would support their production as President Biden looks to shift the country to electric vehicles, a move she said would put farmers at risk.

Vilsack responded that it is necessary to advance the production of both electric vehicles and biofuels moving forward. He referenced a recent study showing that greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than from gasoline, and he reassured the committee that Americans need the biofuel industry for the foreseeable future as electric vehicle technology catches up. Vilsack added that expanding renewable energy can also benefit farmers. Iowa farmers and landowners receive about $69 million annually from energy companies that lease their land for wind turbines, and those opportunities could expand as demand for electric vehicles increases.

How Biden’s Pick for Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture Pertains to Climate Change


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Maxwell Bernstein | December 11, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden selected former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to NPR. Biden’s pick for Vilsack as secretary of agriculture will lead to a greater focus on climate change than the current secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue. As secretary of agriculture, Perdue’s USDA chose not to release a climate change response plan, according to Politico.

People are calling for Vilsack to make the USDA a sponsor of action on climate change and utilize a multibillion-dollar monetary asset called the Commodity Credit Corp. to pay farmers for practices that limit greenhouse gasses. The USDA’s budget already includes billions of dollars for programs such as one that can provide solar and wind power for rural areas or a program that incentivizes agricultural practices that capture carbon dioxide from the air. 

USDA approves hemp farming in Iowa


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Nutritional hemp seeds will soon be grown in Iowa (via flickr). 

Julia Poska | April 6, 2020

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Iowa’s hemp production plan last week. The move opens the door for Iowa farmers to begin growing the crop, often praised for its environmental advantages.

Hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant that contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC, which is more highly concentrated in marijuana.

Proponents of hemp often promote the crop based on its environmental footprint. Hemp grows well nearly everywhere with relatively low water, pesticide and fertilizer demands in comparison to other cash crops.

The national rise in hemp growing has been largely fueled by demand for CBD, a compound increasingly used in foods and personal care products for its alleged calming properties. The various parts of the hemp plant can produce a wide range of other products, as well, however.

Hemp seeds and milk provide plant-based protein. Hemp resin can produce petroleum-free plastic. Hemp fiber can make paper with a smaller environmental footprint than wood paper and textiles with a smaller footprint than cotton.

Industrial hemp cultivation and products are not legal everywhere however, posing regulatory challenges for those wishing to trade the crop.

The new Iowa law should become official Wednesday, when it’s scheduled to be published on the Iowa Administrative Bulletin, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. The USDA  indicated that Iowa farmers would be allowed to grow 40 acres of hemp, with THC levels below 0.3 percent.

 

Ag industry making progress on climate


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Photo via Flickr

Julia Poska| December 13, 2019

Politico report from last week offered insight into a confidential meeting on fighting climate change with agriculture six months prior. The meeting, hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in Maryland, “represented a change” from farmers’ historic attitudes on climate, according to reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich.

The article explained that farmers have been long-resistant to discuss or adapt to climate change for several reasons, including the left-wing association of the issue (American rural communities are largely Conservative) and that farmers are often blamed for a number of environmental issues. But severe flooding and unyielding wet conditions this growing season, however, left a record number of American farmland unplanted in 2019, leading to huge financial losses for farmers. The article suggests that unfavorable weather in recent seasons may be raising farmers’ alarm.

At the June meeting, government, business and non-profit leaders in ag spoke and listened, brainstorming and sharing solutions. The host organization premiered a 5-minute video on the topic, released on Youtubein August, titled “30 Harvests” to represent the amount of time remaining to make transformative change in the industry.

The article referenced a number of farm industry climate action examples from around the country, including a climate-smart agriculture meeting at Iowa State University last month. Bottemiller Evich interviewed several Iowa farmers as well, including Ray Gaesser of Corning, who advocates for both his conservative political beliefs and sequestering carbon through row crop farming.

“Everybody I talk to, including farmers, they say ‘yeah we need to talk about this,” Gaesser told Politico. “We need to find ways to adapt to what’s going on. We’re seeing things we’re not used to seeing.”

Tom Vilsack to deliver lecture next month


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Tom Vilsack currently leads the U.S. Dairy Export Council. (Iowa State University)

Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2017

Tom Vilsack will deliver a lecture at Iowa State University as a part of the National Affairs Series: “When American Values Are in Conflict” next month.

Vilsack served as Governor of Iowa from 1999 through 2007. His lecture, titled “Agriculture and Climate Change,” however, will center more around his work as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Obama administration. As USDA Secretary, Vilsack helped to develop and manage programs related to rural electrification, community mental health and refinancing farm homes, to name a few. He also managed the federal school lunch program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Vilsack currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, “a non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, proprietary processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.”

Additional details about the lecture can be found here.

What: “Agriculture and Climate Change” lecture by Tom Vilsack

Where: Iowa State University Memorial Union-Great Hall

When: Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 pm

Cost: free, open to public

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

On The Radio – Fairfield receives $25 million loan from U.S. Department of Agriculture


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Jake Slobe | November 7, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the $25 million dollar given to Fairfield to better their wastewater facility.

Transcript: The city of Fairfield has received $25 million dollars in order to make enhancements to its wastewater facility that will improve the water quality in southeast Iowa.

 This is the Environmental Focus.

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program is awarding a $25 million direct loan to the City of Fairfield that will help rehabilitate the city’s existing wastewater facility and bring it into compliance with Iowa Department of Natural Resources requirements.

 The existing plant was originally constructed in 1966, with updates and improvements added in 1984 and 2013. Still, the plant is not able to meet pollution limits and overflows into local streams during heavy rain events.

This loan, the largest USDA Water and Environmental Program loan ever issued in Iowa, will allow city leaders to implement a master plan over the next 10 years to make improvements to the treatment plant, repair much of the collection system, and address high flows during heavy rains.

Treatment plant upgrades will include new trash screens, new grit removal systems and pumps, as well as an enlarged flow equalization basin.

 For more information about the Fairfield project, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

 From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

New ‘Environmental Working Group’ database analyzes $30 Billion Spent On U.S. Conservation Programs


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Soil erosion is common in Iowa following heavy rains along steep slopes. (Flickr)

Jake Slobe | November 2, 2016

The Enviromental Working Group recently revealed a new database showing the details of  USDA conservation expenditures.

The database allows Americans to see, for the first time, exactly where billions of dollars in conservation funding have gone.

According to the group, even with the $29.8 billion that has been spent on U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation efforts over the past decade, these expenditures are not leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.

Iowa is the leading recipient of USDA conservation funds with more than $4.36 billion since 1995.  However, the states has seen little change in the level of surface water pollution caused by nitrates, bacteria, algae and sediment.

Most USDA conservation payments go to landowners and farmers who convert cropland to grassland for a specified length of time under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The USDA says CRP has kept pollutants out of the water, reduced soil erosion, and provided valuable wildlife habitat.

The Environmental Working Group stated in its report that landowners between 2007 and 2014 withdrew 15.8 million acres from CRP in response to high crop prices.

The Environmental Working Group database shows that counties in the Raccoon River watershed have a lower participation in CRP and that the majority of CRP payments go to residents within counties that are not mission critical for the state’s highest environmental priority — reducing nutrient pollution in the waters of Iowa and farther downstream.

 

 

 

 

USDA awards two Iowa businesses innovation research grants


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Two Iowa firms recently received agricultural research grants from the USDA as a part of a national program. (Brain Abeling/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded two Iowa companies with small business innovation and research grants.

In total, $7.4 million dollars was granted to 76 businesses in 35 states. Former Iowa Governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the grants are meant to provide support for innovative agricultural research and bolster rural communities. Vilsack said,”This program basically focuses on ag innovation, the innovation that can impact and affect production of crops and livestock or the protection of crops and livestock.” He added, “An idea, a thought basically then is developed and the assistance we provide here will allow that idea and thought to potentially get up to scale, to get commercial-sized and to get out in the marketplace.”

Both of the Iowa companies are receiving $100,000 from the grant program for work on specific projects. The first, Accelerated Ag Technologies of Urbandale will use the funds to help develop reliable maize pollen preservation techniques. Vilsack said that this research is linked to corn production. An Ames company will recieve the second $100,000. Vilsack said, “Gross-Wen Technologies of Ames is working on developing a new biobased product from wastewater that will essentially result in a slow-release, algae-based fertilizer.”

In an interview, Vilsack said, “we cannot underestimate the role that small business innovation has played in bringing jobs back to their hometowns.” He added that these businesses are crucial, especially while much of rural America is still recovering from one of the worst economic recessions the U.S. has seen.