THE BLOG

Advice to New Agriculture Secretary Vilsack: Channel Another Son of Iowa

12/23/2008 07:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture lit up sustainable food systems listservs like a switchboard. Vilsack's nomination is not without controversy. He has been criticized for his ties to agribusiness and his support of biofuels and biotechnology. To many, Vilsack represents "agribusiness as usual." But Vilsack also has a reputation for being a good listener and being able to work successfully with those who hold differing viewpoints. Those are reasons to be hopeful.

Being Secretary of Agriculture is a big deal in America. The USDA is not only one of the oldest federal agencies, but one of the largest. Boasting an annual budget of more than $90 billion, the USDA employs over 100,000 people throughout the U.S., many at the county level. In addition to overseeing ag (including some aspects of food safety, like meat inspection), the USDA is also responsible for national nutrition programs, including food stamps and school lunches, programs that daily impact the lives of urban and rural residents alike. Perhaps more than any other U.S. agency, the USDA directly impacts the daily life of Americans. In a nation that has often defined itself by its agricultural productivity and special relationship with the land, the USDA has perhaps also been invested with a more special meaning. We were a nation of farmers at origin: we are still a nation of farmers at heart.

Anticipating an announcement of Vilsack's selection, I stayed up half one night re-reading one of my favorite books, New Frontiers, written in 1934 by another Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Agard Wallace. (There have actually been two secretaries of Ag named Henry Wallace. Henry A. Wallace's father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, held the position from 1921-1924. Henry A. Wallace, the 11th Secretary, held the position from 1933-1940, when he was elected to serve as FDR's wartime Vice President. He also served as Secretary of Commerce for one year, under Truman).

Those who know me well quickly learn that I deeply admire Henry A. Wallace, who oversaw the most radical and sweeping restructuring of agricultural life in America's history, as part of Roosevelt's New Deal. My affection is not unexamined: Wallace's work was controversial then, and the policies he helped develop and implement are often criticized today. Some were indefensible; the destruction of crops when millions of Americans were starving led even Wallace to concede that these "were not acts of idealism in any sane society..."

But Wallace had vision. He understood agriculture. And he understood that his generation needed to face two ways: to pull strength from the lessons of American pioneers and frontier experiences, but also to develop new ways of thinking and responding to the enormous challenges presented by the Great Depression and a changing American cultural and economic landscape.

Wallace sought economic equality and balance, and knew that any possibility of achieving that required some sort of reform that would challenge long-held beliefs. "The hard but necessary first lesson we must all learn is that we cannot prosper separately," he once wrote. While I don't fully agree with Wallace's acceptance of the inevitability of "bigness" in American life (government and business, including agriculture), he helped initiate changes that were needed during that period to make agriculture and the nation more vibrant.

While Mr. Vilsack may not have been the first choice of many people, I think he has an opportunity to make an enormous and positive impact. My advice to the incoming Ag Secretary: Channel another son of Iowa, Henry Agard Wallace. Read everything he wrote. Focus on Wallace's visionary nature and the size of his ideas, not necessarily the specifics. And don't accept the inevitability of bigness in the food system. Instead, perhaps the "big idea" here represents a smaller focus: to help recreate local and regional food systems. Take incredibly good ideas -- like school lunch programs - and incorporate new elements that encourage local sourcing and the consumption of more fruits and vegetables.

Take USDA-sponsored programs, such as the Master Gardeners and 4-H, and leverage these hundreds of thousands of youth and adult volunteers to create an army of foot soldiers to support school, home and community garden and food projects across the nation. Take a really good idea from the USDA/Food Administration, and revive Victory Gardens. And like Henry Wallace did in WWII, make sure to cultivate your own garden at home. As someone who has worked extensively with Master Gardeners, 4-H and the concept of Victory Gardens, I'd be happy to chat with your staff about these ideas, on my own dime. They're good ideas. As Secretary of Agriculture, you could make them happen.

The basic idea of all of the above: use the USDA's vast resource base of employees, volunteers and cooperating agencies (states, school districts, etc.), and capitalize on the agency's geographical reach to build sustainable and healthy American communities in all senses of the word.

I'd also suggest that if you haven't already, that you read about the cultural, intellectual and social life -- and the policies -- of the New Deal. Something tells me there are some good lessons there. In addition to Wallace's own words, David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear is a rollicking good read (it won the Pulitzer Prize). If you don't have time to get through all 936 pages, read the sections on the New Deal and agricultural reform. (And to get an idea of how this all got set up, read chapter 13 of William Leuchtenburg's Perils of Prosperity, appropriately entitled "Smashup." Heck, read the whole book - it's short and you won't be able to put it down). You may also wish to snag a copy of Richard Pells' Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years.

Near the end of New Frontiers, Wallace wrote "Too many of is want to see "normalcy" restored, in the old sense, and live again in plenty without facing facts. That cannot be. The world has changed."

Indeed it has. And under your leadership, the USDA has an opportunity to respond in new and visionary ways to these changes and the challenges and opportunities they present. Please consider and effect real change, Secretary Vilsack. And count me in to help.