Who Cares Who the Secretary of Agriculture Is?

The job of secretary of agriculture in the past has first and foremost been to keep moneyed interests in charge.

Years ago, Robert Kennedy noted that making economic, political and social progress is hard because such advances require rejecting the same old business-as-usual policies that sustain the establishment’s profits and power. “‘Progress’ is the nice word,” he said. “But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”

His recognition that gutsy, honest leadership is necessary to confront the wealthy interests and advance the Common Good is directly applicable to one of the most important Cabinet appointments President-elect Joe Biden will make: secretary of agriculture.

Calling this position important might surprise most people, for the media and all recent presidents (including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) have dismissed ag as a second-tier, low-visibility slot that essentially “belongs” to the giants of industrial agribusiness. Thus, the ag secretary’s job has first and foremost been to keep these moneyed interests content and in charge, effectively handing control of food and rural policies to them.

This has grossly enriched faraway corporate executives and absentee owners, but it’s been disastrous for farm families, small-town residents and rural vitality. While the national media and their own government look the other way, a broad, multiracial diversity of millions of middle- and low-income rural families face economic and social devastation. Not only are farmers being crushed by profiteering monopolies at all levels of ag (from seeds to marketing) but the larger rural community is also being run over by massive polluters and pipelines, low-wage factories, predatory retail chains and other corporate extractors of rural wealth. The result is a countryside beset by a surge of farm closures, joblessness, Main Street bankruptcies, creeping poverty, loss of health care services, weather calamities due to climate change, lack of broadband, out-migration of youth, COVID-19, opioids, suicides … and a host of other biblical-level plagues.

Time for real change. And the place to begin is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Created in 1862 by then-President Abraham Lincoln to be what he called the “people’s department,” this little-known agency has enormous tools and resources to restore fairness and opportunity across America’s countryside. It has major anti-monopoly authority; has its own banks; controls huge rural development and housing programs; runs the food stamp, school lunch and other nutrition programs; has responsibility for food safety and pesticide regulations; directs the Forest Service and numerous conservation, wildlife and other environmental policies; has sweeping civil rights and labor rights responsibilities; is mandated to serve consumers and the poor; wields a $151 billion annual budget; has some 100,000 employees and more than 4,500 offices across America and abroad; and — most powerfully — has a secretary with broad authority to be a national advocate for the people against the corporate plutocracy now controlling policy.

In other words, ag secretary is a BIG office. But tools only work if you use them. Biden and Democratic leaders generally rightly promised to restore trust that our national government will serve the public interest rather than continuing policies that abet oligarchic power and increase inequality. Here is a clear test of that promise. Instead of recycling another old-line agribusiness acolyte into the USDA, President-elect Biden must be pushed to make a solid progressive choice for secretary of agriculture, someone unencumbered by financial or political ties to the status quo and willing to practice what the late Rep. John Lewis called getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Given Biden’s comfort zone of don’t-rock-the-corporate-boat politics, we won’t get the sort of firebrand populist appointee people need in this office, but neither should we accept just another lobbyist-approved, do-nothing seat warmer. If we can’t get a wholly transformative ag secretary, rural America and all who have a stake in a democratic food system should at least demand a legitimate reformer.

At minimum, the next secretary of agriculture must pledge to try to rally family farmers, food industry workers, consumers, rural communities, small business, urban neighborhoods and environmentalists in a common effort to break the corporate stranglehold and turn the USDA into the “people’s department” again.

I know this is a minimalist demand, but millions of people are hurting; whole communities are collapsing; Biden (not Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) was elected president; and accepting some progress only fuels the push and possibilities for fundamental change.

Jim Hightower