According to various press reports, on Dec. 8, President-Elect Joe Biden nominated Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, which many hemp advocates argue is beneficial for the industry. Vilsack held the same role under President Obama, from 2009 to 2017, after serving as governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. If confirmed, Vilsack would replace Sonny Perdue, who has overseen the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under President Donald Trump since April 2017.
Vilsack’s previous tenure at USDA is cause for optimism
“Vilsack is a long-time champion of hemp, and we cherished our strong working relationship during his previous stint in that position,” Jonathan Miller, the general counsel to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, said. “We are incredibly optimistic that he will help provide the leadership and clarity necessary to unlock opportunity in the hemp industry.”
Miller points to the USDA’s efforts to support hemp during Vilsack’s first tenure as secretary as one reason for optimism. “Throughout the administration, senior aides to Vilsack and other USDA officials were always responsive to industry needs, and the U.S. Hemp Roundtable developed a strong relationship and rapport with the Vilsack team. We look forward to renewing that in January.”
For instance, “the USDA under Vilsack recognized that ‘market research’ under the 2014 Farm Bill included product sales … and facilitate[ed] the initial growth of the program, setting the table for the 2018 Farm Bill,” Miller said. This support was significant given the challenges facing the new industry following the passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill), including the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) seizure of hemp seeds that the Commonwealth of Kentucky imported into the U.S. The DEA also “registered public objections to the sale of hemp products, claiming that the Farm Bill was [for] research only,” he said.
Larry Farnsworth, the spokesman for the National Industrial Hemp Council (NIHC) and the council’s Board Chair Patrick Atagi, agreed that Vilsack’s previous USDA tenure was good for hemp. Farnsworth added that this experience would help Vilsack “hit the ground running and pick up where he and the Obama Administration left off.”
NIHC envisions that Vilsack will build USDA’s support of the industry. This effort will include “helping [break down] or stopping technical barriers to trade and using the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service as a global resource to prevent U.S. hemp and hemp products from being [excluded] from overseas sales,” Farnsworth said. “The NIHC having Kevin Latner, senior vice president of trade and markets, on the USDA/US Trade Representative’s Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee is key to having hemp’s voice heard by the incoming secretary,” he added.
“If we are looking into our crystal ball, the NIHC sees hemp farmers getting more funding from USDA over the next four years, continuing the Perdue trend to help hemp farmers. USDA wants to help farmers,” Farnsworth said. “The USDA committed [$200,000] from the Market Access Program to promote hemp, which is double what new cooperators receive when first entering the program.”
Geoff Whaling, chair of the National Hemp Association (NHA), agreed that Vilsack was a good choice who should benefit hemp in 2021, adding, “I've said it many times that I strongly believe that 2021 is the year of hemp!"
Whaling said that he found the USDA under Vilsack to be supportive of hemp. Whaling added that he sought USDA funding of hemp research when Vilsack was running the agency. Vilsack supported USDA General Counsel Lee Fink and USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Director Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, Ph.D., efforts to provide such funding through USDA NIFA, he added.
Confirmation appears likely
"Vilsack's confirmation will be easier than any other rumored candidate, which will allow him to set up his team and get to work right away—only because many in the Senate know Vilsack and have confirmed his nomination to this post before," Whaling said. (Rumored candidates had included Rep. Marcia Fudge (OH) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.). Biden just nominated Fudge to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
At the same time, Whaling added that he is thankful that Trump USDA appointees implemented the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill). USDA worked in tandem with the hemp industry, including NHA.
"It is because of the efforts of Deputy [Secretary] Greg Ibach and General Counsel Stephen Vaden and the teams around them that hemp was provided with access, that we were able to fast track and confirm crop insurance, access to banking and more recently, through NIFA, an RFA [request for application] for grants totaling $150 million that will be made in 2021 that specifically invited applications to build out the hemp supply chain," Whaling said.
Meetings with the Biden team already underway
Miller said that representatives from the U.S. Hemp Roundtable (USHR) have met with the Biden USDA transition team. "We’ve briefed them on the challenges of the USDA’s Interim Final Rule, as well as the DEA’s IFR that purports to criminalize the hemp extraction process,” Miller told Hemp Grower. “They have been very open to our concerns, asked comprehensive questions, and stress their strong support of hemp farmers and the industry.”
Miller said he is looking forward to seeing Vilsack’s team’s approach to sustainability. This topic is a priority outlined by Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ upcoming administration. Miller noted that Robert Bonnie, the administration’s USDA transition team's chair, is a leader on environmentally sound policies.
Groups seek greater focus on rural issues
Caren Wilcox, executive director of the U.S. Hemp Growers Association, said the group hopes that the USDA under Vilsack will encourage hemp processing in rural regions, with a particular focus on sustainable products.
“These processing plants could provide rural employment and create products such as building materials, paper, and cardboard, bio-plastics that are sustainable, as well as textiles and food products,” Wilcox said.
Hemp research should be part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to address climate change, she said. Wilcox added that “During [Vilsack’s] last tenure as secretary, USDA established what was called Climate Hubs, which helped to coordinate research and outreach in rural America.”
Farnsworth also believes climate change will play a significant role, which will also benefit hemp. “If you look at the transition team and their background, sustainability is huge and a number one priority,” Farnsworth said. “Hemp is a great remediator for soil, uses less water than other crops, and [is] growing in popularity. Farmers need another arrow in their quiver, and hemp is it.”