The next agriculture secretary is the former agriculture secretary. President-elect Joe Biden has picked Tom Vilsack to lead the United States Department of Agriculture. During the announcement, Biden said Vilsack “wasn’t anxious to come back, but I was persistent.” Biden said Vilsack’s first job is to help the country recover from two crises, the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic challenges. Vilsack, 70, is the only member of the cabinet to serve all eight years of the Obama administration. The last person to serve eight years as agriculture secretary was Minnesota’s Orville Freeman in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
 
Back story
    As a familiar face, Tom Vilsack is expected to easily win confirmation as agriculture secretary. Vilsack began his life in a Pittsburgh orphanage and was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1987. After time in the state legislature, Vilsack was elected governor in 1999. In November 2006, the former Iowa governor announced his intention to run for the presidency but withdrew from the race in February 2007. President Obama selected Vilsack to lead USDA in late 2008, and he stayed on the job for eight years. In February 2017, Vilsack took the helm of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Dairy exports increased during his tenure, but Vilsack faced criticism when reports surfaced that his annual salary was close to $1 million. Most agriculture groups have praised Biden’s choice, but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is critical.

Dairy industry praises Vilsack
    National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said the dairy industry will miss having Tom Vilsack as a colleague and friend as he leaves the U.S. Dairy Export Council for the USDA job. Mulhern said agriculture faces challenges from a difficult economy to climate change and trade. “No one is better suited to tackle these challenges than Tom Vilsack,” said Mulhern. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said Vilsack understands the issues facing farmers today, and he hopes “my Senate colleagues confirm him quickly so he can address the important work at hand at USDA.” Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative President Brody Stapel described Vilsack as a strong advocate for dairy farmers and processors. “Edge stands to work with Mr. Vilsack and his future team to tackle existing and arising challenges facing dairy farmers,” Stapel said.

Criticism
    The advocacy group, Family Farm Action, is not pleased with President-elect Biden’s decision to bring Tom Vilsack back to USDA. In a statement, Family Farm Action described Vilsack as a “big food lobbyist” who worked to globalize the food system “for the benefit of a handful of monopoly corporations.”

Supply, demand report released
    Due to an increase in cow numbers, USDA moved its 2020 milk production forecast higher in the December supply/demand report. At 222.7 billion pounds, milk output is up 200 million pounds from November. With weaker prices for cheese and butter, the price outlook for class III milk was also lowered.

Dairy prices on a roller coaster ride
    National Milk Producers Federation Vice President of Economic Policy and Market Research Peter Vitaliano said the Dairy Margin Coverage program was a surprise this past year. “Going into this year, it looked like there were not going to be payments and that turned out not to be the case,” Vitaliano said. Chris Galen, who is the senior vice president of membership services and strategic initiatives for NMPF, said farmers participating in the five-year version of the Dairy Margin Coverage program are facing an important deadline. “You still have to contact the FSA office by the end of this week to fill out the paperwork for the next year and pay the administrative fees,” Galen said. Class III milk prices are expected to grind lower going into 2021 and feed costs will remain high.

USDA boosts net farm income in revised forecast
    The USDA’s Economic Research Service increased its net farm income forecast by 43% to $119.6 billion. With an inflation adjustment, this puts net farm income at the highest level in seven years. The majority of the farm income increase comes from ad-hoc government payments totaling $46.5 billion, an increase of $24 billion from last year. Higher government payments offset a $9.7 billion decline in cash receipts for livestock producers. Crop cash receipts are forecast to increase $6.5 billion higher than last year at more than $200 billion.

Budget, property taxes are ag priorities for Minnesota Legislature
    Lawmakers will be soon be back in St. Paul to begin a new state legislative session. Ag lobbyist Bruce Kleven said there is restructuring taking place. “Sen. Torrey Westrom from Elbow Lake was the ag finance chair last time and he’s also the ag finance chair this time, but the Senate leadership combined this committee with the ag policy committee,” Kleven said. “That used to be chaired by Sen. Bill Weber from Luverne, and he’s moved to the property tax division. Westrom will have both policy and finance. The same thing happened in the House.” COVID-19 may limit the session agenda, but right now, a key issue for agriculture is the budget. “Other than that, there’s not a lot the agriculture groups are bringing collectively,” Kleven said. “We may be working on state patrol roadside stops, and we’ll play defense on property tax gains.” The session is scheduled to begin Jan. 5, 2021.

Meet the new Minnesota House agriculture finance, policy chair  
    The new chair of the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee is Mike Sundin from Esko. This is Sundin’s fifth legislative session, and he’s previously served on the agriculture and environment committees. There is a contrast between the smaller farms in northeast Minnesota compared to farms in western Minnesota. “We’ve seen a lot of dairy farms in my district, located in the northeast part of the state, disappear as the years go by, and now, there are only a few,” Sundin said. “On the flip side, there is an emergence of organic farmers in the area growing berries or vegetables.” Sundin plans to get more familiar with key ag issues going into the session. When it comes to the state budget, Sundin said the revised estimate out last week is good news in the short-term, but how it will impact agriculture’s budget is unclear at this time.

Farm activist Anne Kanten, 93, dies
    Former Minnesota Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture Anne Kanten, 93, has died. Kanten became active in farm policy during the late 1970s and 1980s. Kanten is responsible for many programs that are still being used today, including the Farm Advocate Program, Farmer-Lender Mediation and the Rural Finance Authority. Kanten was inducted into the Minnesota DFL Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
 
Trivia challenge
    The Christmas cocktail made from egg nog, brandy or spiced rum is a Tom and Jerry. That answers our last trivia question. For this week, when is Inauguration Day? We will have the answer in the next edition of Dairy Star.
    Don Wick is owner/broadcaster for the Red River Farm Network, based in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Wick has been recognized as the National Farm Broadcaster of the Year and served as president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Don and his wife, Kolleen, have two adult sons, Tony and Sam, and five grandchildren, Aiden, Piper, Adrienne, Aurora, and Sterling.