Tom Vilsack is back in the saddle at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vilsack, confirmed and sworn in as America's 32nd ag secretary earlier this week, said USDA has a full plate and a tight timetable.

"There's quite a bit to do, and, as I've been saying, very little time to do it," said Vilsack, who previously served eight years as ag secretary under President Barack Obama.

Vilsack spoke Thursday, Feb. 25, in a wide-ranging, fast-moving conference call with the news media.

USDA's immediate priority, in keeping with President Joe Biden's agenda, is "controlling the (COVID-19) pandemic," Vilsack said.

"Rural residents are more vulnerable to serious infections and death," for which there are a number of causes, Vilsack said. "So it's incredibly important for the Department of Agriculture to help" through its programs aimed at rural residents.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

One concrete step in doing that:

Also on Feb. 25, USDA announced it will spend $42.3 million to help rural residents gain better access to health care and educational opportunities through distance learning and telemedicine. Vilsack said the money can help as many 5 million rural residents.

Another USDA action to combat the pandemic is assigning 350 USDA employees to enhance the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccination program, Vilsack said.

He also mentioned USDA has extended through June 20 the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums on USDA Single Family Housing Direct and Guaranteed loans. That will help rural Americans with housing loans through USDA.

Other priorities

Vilsack, who served as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council between his stints as ag secretary under Obama and Biden, said his dairy experience has given him greater appreciation for the importance of U.S. ag exports.

Though China has received most of the recent attention involving U.S. ag exports, America needs strong trading partners worldwide to keep its ag exports robust and, he said.

Among other topics addressed by Vilsack:

  • USDA continues to make payments under the CFAP 2 program, more formally known as the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. USDA understands, and is studying, complaints that some people were left out or otherwise treated poorly by the program. "The bottom line is, we want to do this the right way," Vilsack said.

  • During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack said this is a different time and department and that he's a different person from his first stint as ag secretary. Asked to elaborate that in the Feb. 25 conference call, Vilsack said a great many USDA employees are working away from the office because of the pandemic and that many staff positions at some key agencies are empty. Biden, a former Iowa governor, also said he just received his second COVID-19 vaccination shot and is working temporarily in Iowa before returning full-time to Washington, D.C.
  • Scientific research and data will take on renewed importance in the Biden administration. Though Vilsack didn't say so, the Trump administration's positions on science-related issues frequently were criticized by scientists and others.
  • More attention on climate change. "There's a deeper recognition on the importance on climate, and the opportunity that presents," with agriculture potentially being a leader, Vilsack said. More focus on climate change will benefit the environment, as well as boosting market demand and farmers' income by reassuring customers, both domestic and foreign, who are concerned about the sustainability of the food they buy.
  • Greater focus on renewable energy and soil health. "Farmers understand that (the importance of soil health) better than anyone," Vilsack said.