His campaign for President was brief, but Tom Vilsack is one of longest serving Secretaries of Agriculture in U.S. history.  He held the post for the 8-year Obama Administration, and he’s close to another four with Biden-Harris.

Whether or not there’s another term this time, there are signs that the former Governor of Iowa will soon cash it in.  The “tell sign” is the sudden expressions of honesty coming from Vilsack himself.  Everybody knows that telling the truth is the one thing that can get you into trouble in Washington, D.C.

After thousands of routine statements have gone out under his name, almost like being part of the furniture, Vilsack began popping out truths that have shaken things up in just the past few days.

First up may have been his predicting that USDA was “18 months or so” away from having a bird flu vaccine available. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is the lead agency for combatting avian influenza, and it has not seemed interested in vaccines.

The APHIS  party line was that bird vaccines were a “French thing” that would upset trade and could be accomplished with biosecurity. Vilsack, however,  says USDA is already working to distribute a vaccine and discussing those plans with trading partners.  The Secretary seems to be acknowledging that the  avian influenza death is just too large to continued failed approaches.

Next was the Farm Bill in the House Agriculture Committee, where Vilsack spent five hours testifying, only to call the experience “a wasted opportunity.”  He said it was disappointing not to result in “more creative ways to help farmers.”

The Farm Bill has required three extensions, as little progress has been made on the renewed version.

Vilsack wants a new Farm Bill that helps smaller farmers. Only 11 percent of USDA farm assistance goes to the 1.6 million smaller farms in the U.S.  The rest goes to large scale operations with sales of more than $500,000 annually.

And finally,  Vilsack has told Congress that agricultural producers are going to face “chaos in the marketplace” if Congress doesn’t address the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling over California’s Proposition 12.

Vilsack pointed out that “chaos” can be created when each state can define what farming techniques or practices are appropriate for itself.  “I’m not sure that this Congress will be able to pass legislation, but in due respect, I would suggest that if we don’t take this seriously, we will have chaos in the marketplace. That’s because nothing prevents any state from doing what California did.”

Much like the original COOL labeling, Vilsack expressed concern about possible trade ramifications from Canadians as the rules from California’s proposition begin to affect how pigs are raised by Canadian farmers, who then ship those pigs to U.S. finishing farms.

As Vilsack likely anticipated, he heard animal activists label his concerns “ alarming comments.” He will get a lot of that as long as he keeps telling us what is really on his mind, but at this point, I doubt if he cares. 

Vilsack might stay to tie the historic record. James Wilson was Secretary of Agriculture for 16 years under President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.  He holds the record for the longest cabinet service.  Vilsack is going on 12.

But candid comments are likely a sign that he will step down before year 13. Until then, however, I am listening.

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