CABINET HEARING: Thomas Vilsack, Nominee for Secretary of Agriculture

February 2, 2021, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

Questions from Senators touched on topics including carbon neutral agriculture, trade relations, biofuels, nutritional programs, livestock markets, the forest and wood products industry, and electric vehicles. 


  • Carbon Neutral Agriculture – Multiple Senators asked Vilsack about carbon neutral agriculture and implementing programs that encourage farmers to partake in them. Vilsack said that becoming carbon neutral in the agriculture industry would give the U.S. a competitive advantage and that there is some concern that a program for this could potentially benefit third parties and investors. Vilsack stated it must be designed to primarily benefit farmers because we want to incentivize them to do it.
  • Trade – Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) asked about Vilsack’s mission for the undersecretary for trade and how trade relations will help farmers. Vilsack said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will want to look at trade agreements and ensure that the U.S. has a competitive edge. Vilsack said the undersecretary has an important role in having a presence in the export markets to ensure the U.S. is front and center. 
  • Biofuels – Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked about Vilsack’s plan for biofuels. Vilsack said the USDA will need to work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) so that the EPA really understands the importance of this industry. Vilsack believed that there is a way for the USDA to build out the infrastructure to make it easier for biofuels to be available to consumers.
  • Nutrition Programs – Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) asked how access to nutritional programs, like the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, can be improved. Vilsack said a start would be consolidating the application process so that individuals are not having to fill out four different applications in four different offices answering the same questions every time.
  • Livestock Markets – Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) asked what Vilsack would do to support livestock markets. Vilsack said there needs to be alternative processing facilities to prevent the havoc that was created in the market during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that as processing facilities closed, there was nowhere to have the meat processed, which caused the supply and price issues.
  • Forestry – Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) asked about the forest and wood products industry and what Vilsack’s views are on how the USDA can strengthen and grow markets for wood products, including leading on new innovative products. Vilsack said the first step will be to look at the procurement procedures that are in place. He believed there are ways to encourage the use of these products, but the challenge is being able to use this wood and preserve the carbon in this wood so that the U.S. can better preserve our forests.
  • Electric Vehicles – Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) mentioned President Biden’s executive order to change the federal vehicle fleet to electric vehicles. She asked Vilsack if he will continue to keep them running on E-85. Vilsack said he did not believe it was an either-or situation. He added that the country will need biofuels going forward. He noted that at the same time, there will be more and more electric vehicles in the country going forward, which will give more opportunities in rural America to produce rural renewable energy.


During his hearing former Secretary Vilsack assured Senators that he would take a new and fresh approach to running the Agriculture Department, an agency he also ran for eight years during the Obama administration. Vilsack highlighted his commitment to carbon neutral agriculture and implementing programs that encouraged participation and benefited farmers across the country. This commitment complements the Biden administration’s plan to grow the bioeconomy and bio-based manufacturing to bring cutting-edge manufacturing jobs back to rural America. Vilsack also reaffirmed his support of the SNAP program and noted that it was particularly vital as the nation continues to recover from the ongoing pandemic. Lastly, Vilsack acknowledged the agency’s need to examine systemic racial inequity in the implementation of the department’s programs and work to ensure adequate support for farmers of color.


Vilsack displayed a mastery of the issues and an in depth understanding of how the Agriculture Department functions. He received an extremely friendly welcome from Senators from both sides of the aisle and the committee advanced his nomination by voice vote. Vilsack is a relatively safe and conventional pick, and his nomination will likely move to the Senate floor quickly and ultimately receive broad bipartisan support.