Change Starts at the Top and at the Bottom: Thoughts on the Vilsack Appointment

The rural and sustainable agriculture community is inundated with opinions on President-elect Obama's pick to head the USDA. Listservs are burning up, the phones in our office are ringing, and one organization even launched a new website dedicated to criticizing the announcement. Grassroots activists, political insiders and reporters all want to know -- what do you think about Tom Vilsack?

Whoa folks. It's just the Secretary of Agriculture (not to begrudge you anything, Mr. Secretary).

Let's start at the top. Obama ran on an aggressive platform of change in farm and rural policy, and any advocates looking into the crystal ball to predict the future at USDA should revisit it today (short version | long version (pdf)). From the plan:

  • Strong Safety Net for Family Farmers: Fight for farm programs that provide family farmers with stability and predictability. Implement a $250,000 payment limitation so we help family farmers -- not large corporate agribusiness. Close the loopholes that allow mega farms to get around payment limits.
  • Prevent Anticompetitive Behavior Against Family Farms: Pass a packer ban. When meatpackers own livestock they can manipulate prices and discriminate against independent farmers. Strengthen anti-monopoly laws and strengthen producer protections to ensure independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices.
  • Regulate CAFOs: Strictly regulate pollution from large factory livestock farms, with fines for those that violate tough standards. Support meaningful local control.
  • Encourage Organic and Local Agriculture: Help organic farmers afford to certify their crops and reform crop insurance to not penalize organic farmers. Promote regional food systems.
  • Encourage Young People to Become Farmers: Establish a new program to identify and train the next generation of farmers. Provide tax incentives to make it easier for new farmers to afford their first farm.
  • Support Small Business Development: Provide capital for farmers to create value-added enterprises, like cooperative marketing initiatives and farmer-owned processing plants. Establish a small business and micro-enterprise initiative for rural America.
There is something in that plan for nearly everyone who reads it. Obama is at the top, and he's staked his reputation on delivering specific policy reforms. As Secretary, Tom Vilsack's most important job will be to support the President in the crucial work of implementing that vision. Here at the Center, we believe Tom Vilsack will serve Obama well in that capacity.

That said, we will not miss a single beat in our work to ensure that President Obama and Secretary Vilsack live up to their potential and their promises to rural America.

And that brings me to my next point.

Change also comes from the bottom, from thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands articulating a new direction and going to work to make it so.

At the Center, we won't quit fighting for one minute. We won't quit fighting for a rural America that offers genuine opportunity to all who live in rural communities. We won't quit fighting for agricultural policy that supports family farmers and ranchers and protects our environment for future generations. And we won't quit fighting to ensure that ordinary rural people have a seat at the table and a say in shaping the future of their own communities.

We hope that Obama and Vilsack will fight along side of us, but if they don't, we will charge on without them, and in opposition to them when necessary. We've done it before.

Anyone who is upset by today's appointment, and I know there are many of you, must do the same. Advocates against genetic modification (the most vociferous objectors today), redouble your efforts, check Obama's policy statements to see what he promised, and make clear and convincing arguments to further your cause.

For our part, we launched a Grassroots Letter to Secretary Vilsack and we are gathering signatures and comments on it. We will deliver the letter and comments to Secretary Vilsack in late January. Already over 700 have signed, many adding their own thoughts on what change is needed in farm and rural policy.

If you join us in this effort, you have my word, Secretary Vilsack will receive your comments.

But that is just a start.

56,000 people signed the Food Democracy Now petition launched by Iowan Dave Murphy. Together they were calling for one of six candidates to be appointed to what was until just a few years ago a rather obscure cabinet position. They didn't get one of their candidates, but I have no doubt whatsoever that they got the attention of some very important people, including Tom Vilsack.

Dave, his 56,000 troopers for change, and progressive food, farm and rural advocates across the country should pause for only a brief moment to consider what direction their strategy goes next. Then go to work, all of us together, executing a plan to influence Vilsack and hold Obama to his campaign promises.

And, hey folks, don't forget about Congress. Your Representatives and Senators are the ones that actually write policy, after all.

So, where does this leave us?

Change in our food and farm policy comes from many places. It can come from a president. It can come from a secretary. It can come from Congress. And it can come from you.

Today, we express hope that with (at least some of) these forces working together we can begin to shift the beast of a system back in our direction. It took decades of misguided policy to get us into the mess we are in today. One presidential election and one secretarial appointment are merely dots along the journey in the other direction.

We are hopeful, but we are not naive. Join us.

Update: We have an "official" statement too, with quotes and all that good stuff. It's here.

Update 2: Also, be sure to check out Steph's earlier post on how to influence other appointments at USDA. That one is here. The other positions are still open, and Steph's advice remains good. 


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