When President-elect Joe Biden moves into the White House in January, one of his first tasks will be nominating his Cabinet. USDA secretary is most important among them, at least to the farm community. We’ll likely have to wait to find out who Biden chooses for the role; it was one of the last positions filled by President Donald Trump.
But that doesn’t mean we have to wait to talk about it. So who will Biden tap to run the USDA? And what policies will the new secretary prioritize?
The answer to the latter is likely dependent on who Biden picks. Michael Scuse, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture and the president-elect’s long-time friend, has some guesses. He told AgWeb that Biden will pick someone who will rebuild relationships with our trading partners, as well as someone who understands agriculture’s role in combating climate change.
With that in mind, Biden’s pick for USDA secretary has become increasingly divisive. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is seen as the frontrunner. But her moderate profile rankles more progressive groups. Those groups are pushing Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who wrote a letter to the president-elect pushing for her own appointment.
So who are these women?
Heitkamp is more well-known in agriculture circles. She previously sat on the Senate Agriculture Committee before she lost re-election in 2018. She’s fairly moderate (so moderate Trump flirted with appointing her to the same position), and has a positive relationship with agriculture companies and advocates. That rankles some environmental groups and more extreme progressives, who think she’s too moderate.
My thoughts? I would feel very comfortable with her at the USDA’s helm. She’s worked on past farm bills and federal GMO-labeling laws. She has good relationships with key stakeholders. She understands the big issues. And Heitkamp understands the importance of rural communities.
Fudge is the favorite pick among the more progressive wing of the Democratic party and the Congressional Black Caucus. Fudge sits on the House Agriculture Committee. She pushed for more clean-water and soil-health measures in the 2018 Farm Bill. And she promises to expand the USDA’s conservation programs. But her real interest is in the USDA’s food-stamp programs, over which she clashed with the Trump administration.
My thoughts? Fudge makes me nervous, as anyone pushed by far-left environmental groups do. Fudge’s focus is definitely on nutrition and food assistance, which is an important part of the USDA. And if it was just that, I wouldn’t care. But the agriculture side can’t be ignored, especially during an economic downturn as bad as this one. I’m worried about a USDA Secretary who doesn’t prioritize it.
It’s admittedly quite a decision for Biden. Rural Americans probably would like to see Heitkamp fill the role. She understands the position, understands agriculture, and could easily step into the role. On the other hand, Biden has to appease more progressive voices in his party. Fudge’s focus on the nutrition and food-stamp programs makes her appealing to his base.
Of course, I have no inside connections or the gift of prophecy. So maybe Biden picks someone else entirely. But if he sticks with the two top contenders, I sincerely hope he picks Heitkamp. If we’re going to tackle climate change, pass another farm bill, and fix the agricultural economy, we need someone who is known as a friend of farmers. We need someone who understands the industry. And we need someone who can hit the ground running.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.