This is a transcript of the Spur of the Moment episode “Tackling big ag challenges with Tom Vilsack.” It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
Tom Vilsack: You might have to convince me to eat a to fine looking turnip while we’re talking about it.
Jocelyn Hittle: Welcome to Spur of the Moment, the podcast of Colorado State University Spur campus in Denver, Colorado.
Tom Vilsack: And the reality is that you can have the healthiest soil in the world, but if you don’t have enough water, it’s very difficult. There are counties in this country where the poverty level has been higher than 20% for 30 years or more.
Jocelyn Hittle: On this podcast, we talk with experts in food, water and health about how they are tackling the big challenges in these areas. I’m Jocelyn Hittle and I’m thrilled to be joined today by Tom Vilsack, US secretary of agriculture. Secretary Vilsack has also been the governor of Iowa, mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, lawyer and has worn many other hats throughout his career. I look forward to talking more about his professional journey. Welcome secretary Vilsack.
Tom Vilsack: Jocelyn, it’s great to be with you and perhaps the title that’s most appropriate for this podcast is a senior advisor to the chancellor of CSU, which I have enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the Colorado State family and certainly chancellor Frank and you and many of the other folks who’ve been involved in the Spur project.
Jocelyn Hittle: Wonderful, thank you, we have been honored to have you with us over the last, I guess it’s been about three years.
Tom Vilsack: It has.
Jocelyn Hittle: Wonderful. So it’s great to be speaking with you today, we are speaking during inauguration week in January of 2021. With your official nomination and confirmation process for secretary of agriculture coming soon, of course, this is a process you are familiar with having served a secretary of agriculture for all eight years of the Obama administration. So first of all, congratulations.
Tom Vilsack: Well, thanks. I’ve been telling people I’m not sure whether it’s congratulations or condolences, this has never happened before in the history of the department of agriculture, that someone has come, who has been a secretary at another administration with a different secretary and that individual comes back for a second stint. The first time you get a job like this, you are excited, you’re nervous, you’re anxious to get to work. This time, a little fear, a little anxiety in large part because I recognize the enormity of the challenge and the breadth of the department of agriculture far better than I did 12 years ago when I took the job the first time.
Jocelyn Hittle: Absolutely, the learning curve will be a little different this time around.
Tom Vilsack: It will be, but of course this is a different time. It’s amazing that in a relatively short period of time, the department is different, the challenges, some of which are the same, but many of them are different, some are larger, some are smaller, the times obviously with COVID and the pandemic and the crisis that has created both in terms of health and in terms of the economy, plays a premium on quick action and of course sometimes within the federal government and within departmental regulations and so forth, quick action, sometimes is not easy to accomplish.
Jocelyn Hittle: So, speaking of quick action, I do want to talk about your longterm strategies as well, but maybe we can start with your first 100 days. What are your initial priorities as you return to the role?
Tom Vilsack: Well you’d like to be able to walk into a building on the first day and say to your team, “We’ve got three major things we want to do or two major things we want to do.” The reality is I’m going to walk in there, If I get confirmed, I’m going to walk in and I’m going to say, “We have eight different priorities that we have to deal with.” It represents the breadth of the department, you start with the obvious. We have a role to play in COVID and the COVID relief effort. That role first and foremost is to make sure that we get nutrition assistance to people who are in need and to get it in a way that is most convenient and most usable for folks who are struggling financially. The second piece of this is to rebuild the trust, especially for those in rural areas, about the importance of social distancing and masking and testing and vaccinations.
Tom Vilsack: The sad reality is that today, roughly half of America is still suspect, not trusting completely and fully, the notion of vaccination. Well, if we don’t get folks vaccinated, it will be more difficult for us to get on the other side of this. So as a department that is trusted in rural places, we have to use that trust to educate and encourage people to understand the importance of vaccination and then once we get on the other side, we obviously are a department that will help begin, as the president likes to say, to build America back better, to build rural America back better and we will have a role to play, so COVID relief, really important. Nutrition assistance and security, so often we hear people talk about food insecurity. The fact that 42 million Americans are currently taking snap benefits, the fact that 40% of African-American families are what is called food insecure, I want to change the nomenclature here.
Tom Vilsack: I don’t want to talk about food insecurity, I would prefer to talk about nutrition insecurity. They’re not necessarily the same thing and you can be food secure, but you can also be nutrition deficient and I think it’s about trying to figure out ways in which we can encourage people to understand that link between a healthy diet and healthy outcomes and greater resistance to viruses and the various things that we’re going to confront in the future. So we’re going to talk a lot about how we can create and how we can implement nutrition programs in a way that advances nutrition security senses, incredibly important part. Climate, the opportunity to rebuild back better by focusing on a regenerative agricultural future for American agriculture. When the president campaigned, he talked about a net zero agricultural future for the US and that’s certainly an aspirational goal that I think carries with it tremendous opportunity to increase an improved farm income, so that’s something we’ll be focusing on.
Tom Vilsack: We’ll focus obviously on the force, Senator Bennett and others understand and appreciate that significant investments have to be made in that system to improve it, we need to be a partner with him and others who want to put major resources and see our forest just in the same way we see roads and bridges and ports and dams, airports, this is infrastructure, we need to invest in it. Opening competitive markets, the ability of local and regional food systems to create new market opportunities for farmers. So the farmers of whatever size have a market that they can enter into competitively. So that’s a priority equity and justice issues.
Tom Vilsack: Sadly, the department of agriculture has assorted history and has had for some time in the area of civil rights. We began to address that in the Obama administration, there is much, much more work to be done in that space that’s a priority. And then finally the morale and structure of USDA, we want to make sure that the people understand that first and foremost we care about the people that work for USDA and want to make sure they’re protected and that they have job satisfaction. So lots to do, obviously in the first 100 days, like to see action and activity and all of those areas.
Jocelyn Hittle: Wonderful. But there are many who appreciate that the Biden administration will bring people such as yourself, with experience, back into the administration and speaking of all you have to get done in the first 100 days, that does mean, with your experience, you can hit the ground running. In addition to what you’ve articulated there in those eight different areas, are there things that you were not able to do or see fulfilled in your first terms as the head of USDA, that’s the US Department of Agriculture, that you’re prioritizing this time?
Tom Vilsack: Well, several things that are specific to Colorado, in Colorado State University I mean, we did a lot of work on the forest, but we didn’t get the job done, obviously, because we continue to have massive forest fires that are a result of, not a year or two or one or two administrations, but it’s a result of a long-term failure to adequately invest. Again, Senator Bennett understands and appreciates I had a conversation with him and he understands that we’re talking about a major investment. This is not something where you can put a couple of hundred million dollars and say you’re doing something, there literally needs to be billions of dollars of a better forest management.
Tom Vilsack: So that’s one area, I think civil rights and equity issues, we made progress on the surface, we dealt with the issues that were most prominent at the time, settlement of claims against the department, literally tens of thousands of claims for discrimination would have been filed, we settled most of those and resolved many of them, but we didn’t get down deep into the systems themselves to figure out where there may be barriers, either intentional or unintentional, that make it difficult for socially disadvantaged producers, black farmers, Hispanic farmers, native American farmers, women farmers, to be able to access and utilize fully and completely and fairly the programs at USDA. So we have some real work to do, hard work to do in that space that needs to be a continuation of what was started.
Tom Vilsack: Nutrition assistance, nutrition security, we tried to improve school lunches, we tried with the MyPlate effort to try to educate Americans about what that healthy diet consists of, more work to be done in that area for sure. And we can start it on climate, but we just got started on climate before that administration ended and the expectation was that it would continue in future administrations. Obviously we’ve had a bit of a disruption here for the last four years, but I think we’re going to get back on track very quickly in the Biden and Harris administration.
Jocelyn Hittle: So related to climate, as you know, the Spur campus is focused on some intersections, one of which is the intersection between food and water. And obviously with climate change, water is at the forefront of a lot of folks minds, people in agriculture and not. In this past year, we’ve seen the impact of too little water on food production in large swaths of the country and too much water in others, something you experienced personally in IOM. Can you talk a little bit about that intersection between food and water and how you’re going to be addressing it and areas where the USDA in particular is well suited to do work?
Tom Vilsack: Well, first of all, I think that the Spur campus in particular and the work in establishing the Spur campus and the commitment of that campus to water issues, I think is really, really important. Why? Because when people talk about climate, when they talk about agriculture, they often talk, they almost immediately go to soil. This is soil health, absolutely important, very important, regenerative practices, cover crops, getting away from mono culture and more diverse crop rotations, rotational grazing, a lot of the mechanisms and practices that that will lead to healthier soil. We don’t have that same level of conversation about water and the reality is that you can have the healthiest soil in the world, but if you don’t have enough water, it’s very difficult. So what do you do about that? Well, first you have to raise people’s awareness of the issue and I think USDA has the opportunity to do that.
Tom Vilsack: We had a drought resiliency partnership arrangement at USDA when I was secretary that’s been put in the background, I think we need to bring that back up. So we give people and we make sure that they understand either the lack of water or too much water is front of mind at USDA. We obviously have some research components to this in terms of, well, okay, if we’re faced with a changing climate, if that’s going to have an impact on how much water we have, what do we do? How do we reuse it? How do we conserve it? How do we create more precision in the agriculture that we have to make sure that the water that is necessary for agriculture is used in the most efficient way? What kind of crops systems do we need? What root systems do we need to develop? What kind of research will help us understand those systems better to be able to make the right decisions?
Tom Vilsack: And how do we just raise the overall awareness, not just to people in the rural areas and on the farm and on the ranch, but people in Denver, people in cities to say just because you turn on the tap, don’t take it for granted because you’re going to be confronted with some serious challenges here in the future. So USDA has a multitude of ways. On the rural development side, it’s about water treatment and it’s about making sure that small communities have access to clean water and healthy water and decent water and how, again, can we equip those smaller communities that may not be in the same position like Denver Water that’s got a whole bunch of folks thinking about these issues and figuring out creative ways to deal with them. That doesn’t necessarily translate to a town that’s got 2000 people and their mayor is of part-time mayor and they’ve got a city administrator who works 40 hours a week and has no idea about these kinds of things.
Tom Vilsack: So it’s, I think, USDA through extension, through the land grant university system, a partnership that we have, a lot of information can be shared with people so there’s greater sensitivity. Rural development resources can be invested in the right water treatment infrastructure, the farm production and conservation folks can talk about how best to utilize the water resources that you have in the most efficient, effective way and the research education and economics folks at USDA can help with research projects to make sure that we, in the future, do a better job. So a lot of places where that’s going to intersect.
Jocelyn Hittle: And can you speak a little about how you see the work that you just described, that USDA will be focusing on, how will that interact with the new office of climate policy with Gina McCarthy, the former head of EPA?
Tom Vilsack: Well I’ll tell you, she is a force. I have dealt with her and worked with her when she was EPA administrator. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s committed, she’s focused and I think she understands the directive from the president and vice president, that climate has to be front and center, it has to be one of the signature policy issues and issues of this administration. I think what we can do, at USDA, is come to her and say, “We can be one of your early wins.” We can be a place where if we can certify and measure conservation results, carbon storage sequestration, we can help create the kind of market opportunity that will encourage more landowners to take the steps necessary to do things that will result in a regenerative agricultural approach and healthier soil, more carbon being stored, reduced emissions within agriculture to the point where the US reaches the goal that the president has set, which is net zero emissions by the year 2050 for American agriculture.
Tom Vilsack: And the good thing about this is, I think, that those in agriculture, whether large or small, are beginning to recognize the significance and importance of this action, because the market’s demanding it. The markets here in the US, many of the large food companies are wanting to be able to make the case to their consumers, to their customers, that they are selling them a product that is helping the environment and not hurting it and certainly internationally, the ability to export food products and crops that were grown in this country. Again, we have to be able to make the sustainability argument because our competitors certainly are and I think we’re going to continue to see an ever increasing understanding worldwide of the importance of all of this. So incredibly important. So working with Gina, I think we can go and say, “Look, if we have the resources, if we have the flexibility in some of the programs at USDA, we can make investments, we can basically showcase how to do this on a large scale.”
Tom Vilsack: We can have a series of farms, for example, that would showcase the technology that exists today to get to a zero emission dairy farm, to get to reduce the emissions for other types of agriculture, all of which can help make the case that we’re headed in the right direction on climate. So I think it can be, hopefully, a good partnership, a solid partnership and one where she sees the benefit of really bringing USDA in at the front end.
Jocelyn Hittle: And this is maybe a parallel question, you’ll have a new colleague in Eric Lander who will lead the office of science and technology policy, which the president elect has elevated to a cabinet level position. Any thoughts on how your respective agencies will work together on climate and whole host of other issues where you’ll doubtlessly intersect?
Tom Vilsack: Well in the previous administration, we worked very closely with the science and technology office, but I think in this particular administration, that their relationship will be even closer and I think the reason for that is that in the previous Trump administration, I think there was a lack of trust in science. I think there was the idea that maybe science didn’t have all the answers and there was a reason to distrust it and so I think there’s going to be a heightened responsibility on our part to maintain science integrity, not to let politics interfere with the science that’s being done, but to make sure that we embrace the science, that we embrace the solutions that science can develop for us as we deal with issues of climate, as we deal with some of the other issues confronting American agriculture.
Tom Vilsack: Precision agriculture is science-based, climate smart agriculture is science-based, the ability to utilize water more effectively and efficiently is science-based. So I think there are a lot of different ways in which we can intersect. That’s a big job he’s got, because science plays in health, I think we’re just obviously going to be a tremendous focus on health because of COVID, but just simply because of the healthcare costs associated with the current state of health healthcare in the United States. So the science folks are going to have something to say there if you’re going to build back better, whether it’s robotics or AI or whatever it might be again, science has got a role there as well.
Tom Vilsack: Information technology is rapidly evolving, there are national security challenges that are science-related, people were trying to manipulate the weather as a national security advantage. People obviously are trying to infiltrate some of our technology systems, that’s science-based so that’s a very important job and I guess what I would hope is that, again, USDA gets a bit of time, if you will, or a focus. It’s so big, there’s so many things going on, it’s pretty easy to forget about a department here or there, so it’s going to be up to us at USDA to make sure we remind them of the important role that the agriculture department can play in this area.
Jocelyn Hittle: And it seems that maybe one of the roles, I think rightly so, that USDA has typically played is engaging much more with rural communities and I would see that as being another role that USDA could play in that intersection with that new office.
Tom Vilsack: Right. And I think it starts, if you will, with the COVID situation. I mean, we’ve got to make sure people understand the science behind vaccinations, we have to make them understand that these vaccines are 90, 95% effective in preventing COVID or preventing a more serious case of COVID. So to the extent that we can get enough people vaccinated, then we get on the other side of this and we all can be free to travel again, to go out and be with one another, where you’re free to go and watch the Rockies play baseball or the Broncos play football or the Rams play whatever sport happens to be happening at CSU at the time. I mean, it’s really sad to see empty stadiums.
Jocelyn Hittle: And can you speak a little bit too about the connections you see between those rural communities that USDA focuses on and an urban audiences, both maybe from the consumer side, but also the production side when it comes to food and urban ag?
Tom Vilsack: Yeah. Gosh, it’s such an interesting conversation because the reason… Well, let me start it this way. My son, Doug, gave me a book for my birthday, it’s the first report of the department of agriculture when it was formed in 1862, it was required by Congress to issue an annual report to the president and to Congress on its activities and this is an incredible volume, it’s 600 and some pages long. At the beginning of it, it talks about the importance of rural places, it talks about the importance of agriculture to guard against significant consolidation of agriculture because of the value of a system that’s so important to the future of the country. And if you were to take the first 20 pages of that document and you were to maybe modernize the language just a little bit, you would never, ever, ever know that this was discussing 1862, you would think it was discussing 2021.
Tom Vilsack: So in that respect, I think we continue to struggle with people. Now, the majority of people living in the country, who just simply don’t understand where their food comes from, they go to the grocery store, they go through the checkout line, they pay the grocer, they bag it, they take it home, they prepare it, the eat it, they don’t stop and think, “Gosh, how many people are connected to this system? Where did this come from? How is it produced?” Now, some people are beginning to ask those questions, but Americans are so blessed because food is relatively inexpensive, which frees up resources for all the other things we like to do. It’s incredibly available for most people, tragically not for all, and it needs to be available for all. It’s in the most part safe, certainly safer than a lot of other places in the world and so there are many benefits to the system and there’s so many people who are employed and connected to it.
Tom Vilsack: So one thing you would hope would happen, especially as people in cities begin to think about, “Well, how could we convert that rooftop and use it for some positive purpose? Or how could we take that abandoned lot over there that has been accumulating trash, how can we convert that into a community garden that gives people the opportunity to grow fresh fruits and vegetables? How can we create an opportunity to, maybe, install a hoop house in a green space in a new subdivision, so that people have that opportunity to extend the growing season of [inaudible 00:24:02]?” How do we do that? And as we do that, gosh, this has been really hard. These folks who farm and ranch, they must really have it.
Tom Vilsack: Now all of a sudden, you begin to develop a common language, a common understanding of the challenges and difficulties of growing anything and raising anything and then maybe you have an understanding of the policies, the practices, the ways in which that system works and you then have a conversation about how you improve the system. And I think climate and the discussion of climate is the unifying factor here. I think producers out in the countryside understand and appreciate that the current system, especially COVID has under underscored this, it is really, really dependent on a number of factors that ranchers and farmers don’t control. We’ve got a tariff which is assessed because of political considerations, the market disappears, the farmers stuck. If it doesn’t rain, farmer doesn’t produce, he or she is stuck.
Tom Vilsack: And I think if we focus on climate, we can basically say to those producers, “Hey, there’s a way in which you could potentially be paid for the use of your land for climate purposes. You could be paid to capture methane from your dairy operation and maybe it goes on the grid and it helps the RAC there not have to build a huge expensive generation facility or maybe you can take that manure and maybe there are ways in which you could separate the solids from the water and reclaim the water so we don’t have a water shortage both in the cities and on your farm and we take the solids and we create a little manufacturing facility down the road that converts it into something more valuable.”
Tom Vilsack: Now, all of a sudden we’re not over applying it to land, we’re not jeopardizing the quality of water, we’re creating jobs and we’re creating new income opportunity and you know what? we’re also reducing your emissions. So the city folks go, “Well, gosh, we really like that notion of reduced…” So new farm income, reduced emissions. Now all of a sudden, there’s a sharing of values and maybe that makes it easier for people in the state legislature and people in Congress and governors and presidents to be able to advocate for resources to encourage that future.
Jocelyn Hittle: It sounds a lot like what is fundamental to what you’re describing is a better understanding of the system overall, both by residents and farmers and ranchers in rural areas and residents in small towns, not everyone in a small town is a farmer and rancher, but also within the urban area, right? It’s a system wide approach.
Tom Vilsack: Right, it is. And frankly, it would also, I think, make us more sensitive to the role that we as consumers play in all of this. So you say, “Well, what are you talking about? I don’t plant any, I just buy the food, I am not involved in decision-making about how farmers do what they do.” Well, actually you do, because when we essentially say to people, to the farmers in the food industry, “Hey, we want our food pretty inexpensively and we want our food where we can buy it pretty quickly or we’re literally in a car and we can go through a restaurant and get a bag and eat while we drive and do 16 things at one time. And we want food that when we go home, we’re not going to spend an hour and a half fixing it, we want to be able to put it in a microwave and zap it for two minutes and have a nice meal.” We have sent the message to the system that this is what we want.
Tom Vilsack: Well, if you want that, it requires a degree of uniformity that becomes incredibly efficient, but requires an environment that’s controlled and an environment that creates a uniform standard product every single… There’s no differentiation, it can be easily converted into a quarter pound patty or into a McRib sandwich. And then all of a sudden, it dawns on you, “Well, geez, maybe I am part of this system, maybe I am making decisions, maybe I’m sending a signal.” Now, I think the signals are changing, I think people are saying, “Hey, we’d like to know where it comes from, we want to know if it’s sustainably produced, we don’t like this additive or that additive.”
Tom Vilsack: And the market’s beginning to send those messages, but people have to understand they’ve got a role here and they can’t just point the finger at the farmer and say, “Oh my gosh, you need to be doing this and this and this,” when with your purchasing decisions, you’re making you’re providing a different signal. And I think part of what we need to do at USDA is to continue to educate how we can create more of a consensus and unity over this, rather than fussing and fighting about it.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah. And I can confirm that the market is moving in this direction, just from my personal experience. I see things come through my social media feeds now and then, there’s a new company, I don’t remember what it’s called, there’s probably more than one that are selling all the vegetables that look a little funny, that don’t meet what you’re saying about uniformity. And for those of us who are on the, “let’s not waste food” bandwagon, they certainly have found their target market. I’m happy to eat, strange looking turnip that’s just as healthy and fine, it just happened to grow a little bit at a bit of an angle.
Tom Vilsack: You might have to convince me to eat a to fine looking turnip while we’re talking about it.
Jocelyn Hittle: Okay. Well, I chose the wrong example. I don’t know, are there-
Tom Vilsack: We’re having a number of those types of vegetables and salad that she’s making, so I’m laughing about it, but the point of it is you’re right, I mean, instead of that being thrown away, it now becomes a value added specialty product, right? And now it’s like you want to get the ugliest looking turnip that you can possibly find so that you can show it off to your friends and neighbors.
Jocelyn Hittle: That’s right, I have no food waste bragging rights when I serve that particular vegetable, yeah. So a little bit of a right turn here, as you’re looking forward into your new role with USDA, are there things about how you have pivoted during COVID that you think will stick in the longterm as you move into that role?
Tom Vilsack: Absolutely, I think I’ll be able to visit with more people more frequently, utilizing a combination of personal and virtual. If you went to commodity classic, for example, say it was in Nashville, Tennessee, you’d have to get on a plane, you’d have to fly to Nashville, you’d appear at the conference, you’d circle around the various booths and then you’d fly back to Washington DC. So you’re talking about portions of probably two or maybe three days. Maybe now you appear virtually and you can also appear to the farm bureau and you can do a speech to the nutrition association and you can talk to the rural development folks and you can, maybe, even have a presentation at a great land grant university like CSU all on the same day.
Tom Vilsack: So instead of talking to five or 600 people, you may end up talking to about 5,000 people, then you do that every single day, all of a sudden you are significantly improving the communication then when you use social media, you can amplify and multiply the impact of that message. So I think from a communications perspective, that’s key. I think from an operational standpoint, the challenge is going to be for us to figure out how to make things more convenient, for example, we talked about nutrition security. To apply for a snap, you have to go through a lot of steps to convince the state government that’s administering the program that you’re entitled to it. You have to have visits and you’ve got to bring your tax returns, it’s a bunch of things you got to do.
Tom Vilsack: Well, why do we require somebody to travel to an office, especially as a family that’s struggling financially, maybe they don’t have a car that operates, maybe they don’t have access to public transportation, maybe it’s just difficult for them, maybe they’re working two jobs and can’t find the time to get there when the office is open. Well, why can’t we figure out ways to use technology to make that program more convenient and by the way, since that family is also applying for a number of other programs, why can’t the computers figure out how the programs can talk to one another? So I don’t have to fill out 16 forms, I only have to fill out one form. I think the goal here, the pressure is going to be on making things more convenient.
Tom Vilsack: And why do we say that snap benefits can only be redeemed in grocery stores? Especially for people that don’t have a grocery store, right? Now that we’ve had in home delivery of meals, does that change the equation? Does that change the way in which the food assistance programs are going to operate? Well, we’ve got the food box program that has some people that think it’s great and some people that have concerns about it, how does that alter the way in which we think about how we help families? And so I think we’re going to be challenged to figure out speed and convenience and reach and greater access all while still maintaining integrity to the program. Not necessarily an easy task, but I think one that, because of COVID, I think people are going to get used to the convenience of being able to do things at home. They’re going to want to know why they have to go out on a winter’s day and travel to an office, sit in line, waste a day to be able to get benefits. It’s a fair question.
Jocelyn Hittle: In addition to talking about COVID-19 as we look back over the last year or so, it’s critical that we reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations around diversity and equity conversations that have been going on for decades, but have had increased prominence in recent months. Can you speak more about what isn’t working for people of color within food and agriculture and what you hope to do to fix those problems?
Tom Vilsack: Well, it’s been a cascading problem. 20 years ago, 25 years ago, you’d walk into a USDA office in some locations, as a black farmer you’d apply for a loan and your application would be put in a pile, it wouldn’t be dealt with because even though it was at the top of the pile, it wouldn’t necessarily be dealt with in a timely way and maybe late, late, late, late in the growing season, you get a notice that your credit has been approved, maybe the interest rates are a little higher, so you don’t get as productive a crop because you’ve planted later, you have to pay a higher interest rate, so maybe you’re not able to save much, tough times come, you lose the farm.
Tom Vilsack: Conversely, a white farmer down the road, got the loan on time, got a better interest rate, has enough to weather the storm and by the way, probably has enough to buy the land when your farm is lost. So it’s a cascading effect that’s occurred over a period of time. So the question then is, what can we do about it? One thing we found out or we find out is that a lot of people don’t know how to access the programs. So we have to identify the deep systemic barriers that exist. Maybe you didn’t get the loan and you appeal that decision to a county appeal board, appeal board that was elected, supposedly, by the people in the county. The problem is not everybody voted or maybe those people were discouraged from voting, so there’s no minority representation on that county, so maybe you don’t get the break that the white farmer is concerned about his loan conditions got, it’s a combination of factors.
Tom Vilsack: So we have to look at the programs, we have to figure out how better to provide technical assistance, we have to figure out what adjustments, in fairness, need to be made given that cascading effect, we have to look for ways in which we can provide an opportunity, if you will, to catch up and then how do we create systems that don’t recreate the problem five years from now so we have just this vicious cycle that keeps happening generation after generation? Jocelyn, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think anybody does, but I think a combination of folks who will really delve deeply into this, will come up with a number of recommendations to improve our processes.
Tom Vilsack: And then it’s about metrics. If you measure it, people pay attention to it. So we need to measure and pay attention to how much resource is being allocated to socially disadvantaged producers. How much of USDA resources are going into socially disadvantaged, persistently poor areas of the country. The reality is that there are counties in this country where the poverty level has been higher than 20% for 30 years or more. Representative Clyburn believes and I think he’s got a point, that at least 10% of USDA resources should be invested in those counties, because how do you explain persistent poverty for 30 years that doesn’t get help? Pretty hard to say that that’s fair. So I think there’s a lot of work that has to be done.
Jocelyn Hittle: And it seems that, I know you’ve been doing this already, having conversations where you’re listening to some of the concerns of farmers and ranchers of color or people who found that the system hasn’t, to your point, that there are systemic problems that make the system inequitable. How do you ensure that you continue to have those diverse voices at the table to advise, to critique, to help with that measurement and setting those metrics over time?
Tom Vilsack: Well, you make sure that you have a diverse workforce to start with. And it’s not just diversity, just, “Okay, I’ve got six of this and five of these and four of these.” You need people, as representative Thompson reminded me, you need people with a proper perspective, people who have gone through this, who have themselves or people that they are close to have gone through this, so they have a sensitivity to it. I was born in an orphanage, okay? That makes me an orphan. Well, my orphan experience is probably a lot different than a lot of other orphans, all right? I was orphaned for like seven months. Now, there are a lot of people that are orphaned for most of their childhood. I can’t necessarily relate to those folks because I haven’t had their experience, so we need people who have had varieties of experiences in this space to come and say, “Well, wait a minute, what about this circumstance? Or here’s what happened to me, how do we deal with that in this new system?”
Tom Vilsack: So it starts with a diverse workforce, it starts with a clear directions from leadership and certainly clearly the president and vice president have been very clear about this, this is a priority, that it’s not just the USDA, it’s throughout the entire federal governments, throughout the entire country. We’ve got to understand the world as it is and as it’s going to be, it has to be diverse, it has to be inclusive, it’s in our collective best interest for that to happen and we all have to be committed to it. And then it’s metrics, it’s basically holding yourself to a standard and meeting that standard or if you’re not finding out why, then what has to change?
Tom Vilsack: So that gets back to representative Clyburn’s 10, 20, 30 program or it gets back to having someone charged with responsibility of saying, “Hey, you’re not getting the job done.” Maybe it’s an ombudsman, maybe it’s an oversight board, maybe it’s some kind of mechanism for ensuring that you are held accountable. And then you invest in your priorities, you make it a priority, you figure out ways in which you can utilize the resources of your department in a creative way to try to provide some degree of help and assistance and I think we’re a different place in the country than we were 12 years ago when I became secretary the first time. I think there’s a much greater sensitivity and I think there’s a greater sense of urgency about getting this done or starting to do it in a meaningful way and it’s hard because I don’t know what I don’t know.
Tom Vilsack: I mean, I haven’t had the experience as a black person, I don’t know what it would be like to have children and literally be frightened every single day when they walk out the door that they may not come back. I didn’t have that experience raising my two sons, I grew up in a small town where we didn’t lock the doors. So how can I possibly understand how that feels, but I can certainly have people explain it to me and explain what within the system creates that fear and then we can address one of the root causes of that so that over time, people can become less anxious about their kids leaving every single day for school or walking down to the grocery store or whatever. I mean, that would be just a frightening experience if you were a parent, that every single day you were literally and understandably scared that your child wouldn’t survive today. I can’t imagine that
Jocelyn Hittle: There are many of us who can’t imagine that and I think one of the things that we are interested in, in our work with the CSU Spur campus, is helping to not only be able to have people be able to imagine what it is like to be in other people’s shoes, but also to imagine a different future for themselves potentially, in part, based on the stories of other people. I want to shift gears a little bit to talk… And you’ve touched on this in some of your comments, to talk a little bit about your story.
Jocelyn Hittle: I might hazard a guess that when you were, say, a five, six year old, you didn’t say, “Someday I want to be the secretary of agriculture.” But here you are taking that job on twice and I think one of the things at Spur, that we want to do, is show this is a path that is available to you no matter who you are and where you come from. So can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you have ended up where you are and a little bit of that path and it’s not exactly a straight line.
Tom Vilsack: Well we just have a couple of minutes, so I won’t tell you the whole life story. But frankly, if my parents were alive today and they knew that I was the secretary of agriculture once, they would think the country is really in trouble and if they knew I had the opportunity to do it twice, they just wouldn’t understand it because there’s nothing about my growing up in the city of Pittsburgh, in the middle of the city, that would have suggested that I was prepared for this job.
Tom Vilsack: I was fortunate to meet a young lady in college who came from a small town in Iowa, I went to law school, her dad was a lawyer, he offered an opportunity to come back and practice law with him, which I did, and I began to immerse myself in small town life and enjoy the incredible richness of being part of a community. A far different experience than what I experienced as a kid growing up in the city and were it not for tragedy in our community, I probably wouldn’t be speaking to you today, but the mayor of our town was shot and killed by a who citizen was upset over a sewer problem that not been fixed and because I’d been involved in community activities and affairs, people thought I could provide leadership to the community during a tough time.
Tom Vilsack: I was elected mayor and I realized that I enjoyed public service. I enjoyed the challenge of it, I enjoyed the decision-making process of it and I was mayor for five years, I tried to be the state Senate for six years and realized I wasn’t a legislator, ran for governor, somehow became the first democratic governor in my state in 30 years and served for eight years and term-limited myself and then I thought my political career was over. I ran briefly for president, chose the year that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, decided to run at the same time, so that was short-lived, but it was an interesting experience, but I got a chance to know people and then president Obama gave me this amazing opportunity and it was such an amazing opportunity, I kept it for eight years and really thought my career was over until president Biden called me and said that he had bad news for me, he wanted me back in USDA.
Tom Vilsack: Obviously I’ve known him for over 30 years and just can’t figure out how to say no to the guy. So here I am, public service, it’s really about trying to solve problems. I grew up in a family, I was adopted into a family where my mom struggled with addiction issues and I think as a youngster growing up in a circumstance like that, you try to solve that problem. You can’t solve it and it’s frustrating because you just don’t have the capacity to solve it and you want to solve it and I think these intractable problems of all these attracted me because I just want to make a difference in my life. We were blessed to have life and I want to ensure that take full advantage of it.
Jocelyn Hittle: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that and sharing your story. Again, I think we want to be sure that everyone understands that there are ways that they can work on these big challenges regardless of what their background is, what their interests are, that everything intersects with these big challenges in some ways, so I appreciate your sharing that.
Tom Vilsack: A good aspect of this though is the educational component. I mean, the key is taking full advantage of that educational opportunity that CSU offers, land grant universities offer or community colleges, whatever it is, that there is an opportunity for relationships, for new challenges to be identified, for you to find your passion and I think I’ll leave you with this Jocelyn, I think that the key here for people in finding their passion is where time doesn’t matter. Where you’re doing something and it doesn’t make any difference whether you’ve done it for two hours or six hours or eight hours or 12 hours, you’re still in love with doing it. You’re not looking at the clock and you’re like, “Oh my God, I got another hour of this.” When you find that work or that kind of whatever in your life, seize it, because that’s where your passion is. And for me, public service, I enjoyed the practice of law, but public service is a place where I could literally spend all my time and be pretty happy doing it. So that’s where my passion is and I’ve been very lucky to be able to follow it.
Jocelyn Hittle: Thank you so much for your time. We are running out of time here, but I will ask one last question, our spur of the moment question, which is actually related to what you were just talking about and that question is, if you were not to have gone into this career of public service that you described, what would you have been?
Tom Vilsack: Well, obviously I’ve practiced on and I enjoy doing that. What I really wanted to do was to teach, but I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a teacher. Besides farming, I think teaching is one of the most, if not the most difficult job there is. I had the experience of trying to teach a class during a summer school program that I was involved with, it was 45 minutes of the most excruciating part of my life. I had prepared all night for the class, I thought I had plenty of material. I used it up in the first 10 minutes and of course I had students who were in summer school, so you can imagine they weren’t necessarily the most energetic and enthusiastic people to be there and it was difficult, it was painful.
Tom Vilsack: I walked out of that room and I said, “Well, that’s it, there’s no way I can be a teacher.” So anybody who teaches, I have profound respect for because it is really, really hard to do. So maybe I would have tried it a second time, but fortunately, for students of the past and future who might’ve been my students, I didn’t have that opportunity, I have this incredible chance to be secretary of agriculture again if the senator confirms me.
Jocelyn Hittle: Thank you so much for your time today secretary Vilsack, I very much appreciate it, I know you’re incredibly busy right now.
Tom Vilsack: Thanks Jocelyn.