Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack

  • Power 50 Ranking: 47
  • Title: Secretary
  • Agency: U.S. Department of Agriculture [3]
  • Key Developments: Directed an additional $20 billion in funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
  • What's Next: Continue work on boosting fruit and vegetable consumption in U.S.; upgrade food safety systems.

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In his February keynote address during the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Agricultural Outlook Forum 2009,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “Farming … is the most difficult occupation, job, calling, of any in the country. You have no control over your input costs, you have very little control over what you get for that which you grow, and you have absolutely no control over the weather.”

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The former Iowa governor probably didn’t hear much dissent from his audience. Although record-high prices for corn, wheat and soybeans made 2008 one of the best years in memory for row-crop growers, other farmers have struggled with steep increases in input costs such as feed, fertilizer and fuel, even as wholesale prices for many of their products have declined. Currently, the U.S. dairy industry is in especially dire straits.

Shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20 this year, Vilsack laid out an ambitious agenda for the USDA, with several of the department’s goals oriented toward helping farmers by boosting fruit and vegetable consumption among both children and adults in the U.S. For example, the agency used a large portion of the $28 billion it was given as part of the federal stimulus package to increase funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp Program.

“For every $5 that is spent in [SNAP], we activate $9.20 of economic activity — more crops being sold, more crops being transported, more crops being retailed, more crops being consumed,” he said in the speech.

And Vilsack has promised to make food safety a priority during his tenure as agriculture secretary. Earlier this month, Vilsack stood with Vice President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce the initial findings of the Food Safety Working Group, which was created by President Obama and given the task of upgrading the country’s food safety system. In the near term, HHS and USDA will target salmonella contamination by strengthening production standards for eggs, poultry and turkey, and the USDA has said it will step up enforcement efforts in beef-processing facilities to fight E. coli.

“We owe it to the American people to deliver on President Obama’s bold promise to greatly enhance our food safety system, moving our approach into the 21st century, employing the best surveillance techniques available, and ensuring that we are doing all we can to prevent illness before it occurs,” Vilsack said during the July 7 press conference.

— Matthew Enis