Joe Biden’s Agriculture Secretary nominee pledges to address discrimination across the Department of Agriculture. In the Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing, Tom Vilsack told lawmakers he will also seek to remove barriers to access for anyone who qualifies for nutrition assistance.
In his opening statement, Vilsack also vowed to ensure USDA is doing its part to end the COVID-19 pandemic, lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets, stop the farm debt cycle and create transparency in pricing throughout the supply chain. Vilsack, who was Agriculture Secretary during the Obama administration, also seeks to restore USDA employee morale “to the high level it was” during his previous tenure at USDA.
Incoming Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, stated, “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.” The Committee advanced the nomination to the full Senate following the hearing.
Speculation is brewing over how the new Biden administration may use the Commodity Credit Corporation. The CCC, as it’s known, was used by the Trump-era Department of Agriculture to provide trade relief to farmers, including Market Facilitation Program payments.
The CCC has a $30 billion fund, with several ideas on how to use the funding, setting up a “tug of war over its limited resources,” according to Politico. Incoming Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has indicated that he has the authority to implement a carbon bank for farmers through the CCC.
President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan also identified the CCC as a means to provide economic relief for restaurants suffering during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, told reporters last week, farmers can be leaders in the climate crisis. She says her focus will be on “voluntary, producer-led opportunities” to allow farmers to cut down emissions and create new income sources.
The Department of Agriculture announced more names of folks serving in key staff positions Wednesday.
Rebecca Piazza was named Senior Advisor for Delivery in the Food, Nutrition and Consumer services undersecretary’s office. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Program Delivery at Nava Public Benefit Corporation.
Steffanie Bezruki was named Chief of Staff in Rural Business Services. During nearly seven years on Capitol Hill, she served in various leadership positions, including most recently as Legislative Director for Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer. Abbey Meller was named Confidential Assistant in the Congressional Relations Office. She served as an Organizing Associate at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
Paul Zeiss was named Confidential Assistant in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Before joining USDA, Zeiss served in various capacities on President Joe Biden’s campaign, most recently as a field organizer.
Tharun Vemulapalli was named Confidential Assistant in the Farm Production and Conservation undersecretary’s office. Vemulapalli previously served as a field organizer for the Democratic Party, working primaries, caucuses and the general election.
The Department of Agriculture Wednesday announced the temporary suspension of past-due debt collections and foreclosures for distressed borrowers under the Farm Storage Facility Loan and the Direct Farm Loan programs.
The measures are to provide relief to farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA will temporarily suspend non-judicial foreclosures, debt offsets or wage garnishments, and referring foreclosures to the Department of Justice. USDA has extended deadlines for producers to respond to loan servicing actions, including loan deferral consideration for financially distressed and delinquent borrowers. In addition, for the Guaranteed Loan program, flexibilities have been made available to lenders to assist in servicing their customers.
The announcement expands previous actions to lessen financial hardship. According to USDA data, more than 12,000 borrowers, approximately ten percent of all borrowers, are eligible for the relief. The temporary suspension is in place until further notice and is expected to continue while the national COVID-19 disaster declaration is in place.
The announcement comes as a relief to NFU, which has been pushing legislators and administration officials to provide family farmers and ranchers with the support they need to withstand the added challenges caused by the pandemic.
In a statement, NFU President Rob Larew lauded the action, saying that it will be particularly beneficial to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Larew says, “By suspending debt collections and foreclosures, the agency will help struggling farmers stay on their land and continue growing food for their fellow Americans.”
The Department of Agriculture Thursday announced three senior appointments. USDA named nutrition policy expert Stacy Dean as deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. Before joining USDA, Dean served as vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
USDA also announced Justin Maxson, CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, as deputy undersecretary for rural development. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is an organization that works toward poverty alleviation and economic justice in southern states.
Mae Wu has been announced as deputy undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. Before joining USDA, Wu served as a senior director at the Natural Resource Defense Council, helping to lead its health and food work. Katharine Ferguson, chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary, says, “We are honored to have professionals of the caliber of Stacy, Justin and Mae join our team.”
The Biden-era Department of Agriculture Wednesday announced the names of those who will hold senior staff positions in Washington, D.C. Gregory Parham was named Interim Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration. Parham served as Assistant Secretary for Administration from 2013-2016.
Katharine Ferguson was named Chief of Staff in the Office of the Secretary. Ferguson served in the Obama Administration as Chief of Staff for the White House Domestic Policy Council and as Chief of Staff for Rural Development at USDA.
Robert Bonnie was named Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Senior Advisor for Climate. Bonnie led the USDA transition team for the Biden administration. Sara Bleich was named Senior Advisor for COVID-19. From 2015-2016, she served as a White House Fellow in the Obama Administration.
Kumar Chandran was named Senior Advisor for Nutrition. He served as Chief of Staff to the Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services in the Obama Administration. And Justo Robles was named White House Liaison. Before joining USDA, Robles served as Georgia Deputy Coalitions Director for Biden for President.