Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was given very few words of advice from his predecessor former secretary of agriculture Ed Schafer who served in the role for a short year. Meanwhile, Vilsack is working on 24 pages long and counting internal memo for the one who will be coming to sit in his desk in 2017.
“It’s extensive, but I hope it’s helpful,” Vilsack shared in an exclusive interview with Feedstuffs. “I would have benefited from something like that.”
Vilsack said the memos detail some of the reporting that allows the future secretary to keep an eye on the department areas. It also discusses areas Vilsack admitted he didn’t make full use of – such as the office of the chief economist, which Vilsack noted he didn’t utilize their talents as much as he should have.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is home to 85,000 to 95,000 career employees or temporary hires. Only 300 are political appointees at USDA and all of those submit resignations at the end of an administration that will either be filled ore reallocated. A handful of undersecretaries require Senate confirmation, meaning the days ahead for the Trump’s administration will have its work cut out for it.
As for unfinished business, Vilsack shared the Office of Management and Budget has 11 rules from USDA still waiting to be finalized in the final days of the Obama Administration. Tom Vilsack shared he’s “hard pressed to predict how many will get across the finish line,” but the agency has all of its work done. (Click here for the full story.)
Vilsack recalls how understaffed he was for the first few months of the administration, recalling he had just 7 people helping him run the agency for the first few months.
Vilsack has many areas he felt he’s improved the agency, and seen fruits because of it. “Every mission area we’re focused on, we’re leaving better than we found it.”
In meeting with the food safety administrator, who has been with the agency for 30 years, he complimented Vilsack’s team for taking not just one significant step in food safety, but accomplishing five. Vilsack shared those successes include actions to make ground beef safer from adulterants such as E. coli O157:H7, modernizing poultry food safety inspections, and the testing and holding policy requiring meat and poultry companies to hold product that is undergoing lab tests for microbial and chemical tests.
“When the write the history books about this administration, they will find we accomplished a great deal on food safety,” Vilsack shared.
Measuring success is never easy, but Vilsack said if you measure it by judging whether you’ve left a place better than you found it, than he can make the case that indeed rural America is better than it was eight years ago when he came into office.
He highlighted successes including unemployment numbers and food insecurity rates down, median farm household income at record levels and record ag exports. He also cited the success of leaving American’s children in a better, healthier place as obesity rates are coming down thanks to improved school feeding programs and the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program.
He also said a significant refocus has been made on research with increased funding for the competitive grants and a new research foundation. He has seen great strides in the rural development team stretching resources by encouraging more public-private partnerships. He hopes the continued creative investment in the rural economy will continue.
He’s also proud of the work made in conservation funding including the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the working lands and wildlife steps to take innovative approaches to advance conservation goals.
Vilsack did admit USDA was unable to convince Congress on the need to rethink how funding addresses the U.S. Forest Service needs. They’re not spending half to two-thirds of the forest budget on putting out fires, rather than helping make healthier forests.