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Incoming Chairwoman Stabenow Opening Statement at Hearing to Consider Agriculture Secretary Nominee Tom Vilsack

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), incoming Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today released the following opening statement at the hearing to consider former Secretary Tom Vilsack to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Live video of the hearing is available here.

Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

Thank you Senator Boozman. Even though the Senate is still finalizing the formal organizing of our Committees, I deeply appreciate your willingness to work together on this critical hearing. Once again, we are showcasing the Agriculture Committee’s strong tradition of bipartisanship.

In the coming year, I’m looking forward to learning more about rice and timber and all of the wonderful things grown in Arkansas —in addition to hearing more about the fortunes of your Arkansas Razorbacks. Who knows, maybe my Spartans and your Razorbacks will meet in the NCAA tournament this spring. Our strong relationship is really one of the best things about our Committee. It makes it easier to put partisan politics aside and get things done.

Our first job is to consider the nomination of former Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is no stranger to the Senate confirmation process – or even the role he’s nominated for. Mr. Secretary, welcome and thank you for being here virtually today. As the former Agriculture Secretary during all eight years of the Obama Administration, you presided over the USDA with a steady hand and decisive leadership.

As you know, we share a long history together. My last turn as Chair coincided with your first tenure at USDA and I’m so happy to have the chance to work with you again. When it comes to food and farm policy, we share many of the same values – from creating a stable, successful agricultural economy, to providing food to children and families in need, to making our small towns vibrant places to live, to addressing the climate crisis.

Your deep knowledge of the Department and understanding of agriculture and rural communities is needed now more than ever. I know that you will not only bring experience, but also new ideas and creative approaches to help us address the wide range of challenges facing our farm and food sector. Mr. Vilsack, as you know, a lot has changed since you were last at the Department.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world before our very eyes. Many essential food workers were on the front lines without adequate protection. Farmers had no choice but to destroy the crops they could no longer sell. Millions of families still don’t have enough food to eat and food banks are overwhelmed with unprecedented demand.

In the most recent COVID-19 assistance package, Congress provided a new round of investments, including measures to support farmers, protect food workers, and boost food assistance. Today, I look forward to hearing your plans to implement those new provisions and learn about your overall approach to addressing the COVID-19 crisis—specifically hunger.

The pandemic isn’t the only challenge we’re facing. The climate crisis poses the greatest threat to the long-term viability of our economy and food supply. While farmers and foresters are directly affected by climate change, they are also uniquely positioned to address it—and to benefit from new streams of income. Exploring these opportunities will be a major focus for this Committee and I look forward to working closely with you and the Biden Administration on it. 

Both of these immediate challenges come against the backdrop of an already-struggling farm economy. President Trump’s chaotic trade policies destroyed markets that took decades to build. And we’ve seen staggering levels of farm bankruptcies. Luckily, we are beginning to see a rebound in prices for many crops which we will monitor closely as we look ahead to the next Farm Bill. 

Unfortunately, not all farmers have had the same opportunity for prosperity in good times, or farm support during the bad. It’s true that USDA has a long and sordid history of civil rights abuses and systemic racism that has created economic disparities for farmers of color across the country. It’s unacceptable and it’s long-past time to address this head on. I know that you have committed to improve fairness and equity for farmers. I want to hear more about that today.

On top of all of this, the previous Administration mismanaged USDA’s ability to address all of these crises. From the destructive relocation of researchers, to persistent vacancies– there is a lot to do to rebuild the Department. Without a strong workforce, USDA can’t fulfill its mission to serve our farmers, families, and rural communities. 

Secretary Vilsack, if confirmed, you have a big task ahead and I know you’re up to the job. You have a proven track record and a deep bench of experience to hit the ground running. I’m most impressed by your commitment to embrace new ideas to usher in a new era at the Department. Thank you again for being with us today and I look forward to hearing more about your plans and vision for the USDA.