Kevin Mahalko manages a family-run organic dairy farm near Gilman. (Photo supplied)
Kevin Mahalko, who manages a family-run organic dairy farm near Gilman, says new USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack must make it a priority to preserve small family farms. (Photo supplied)

Having already led the USDA under Obama, he’ll be walking a tightrope between corporate and family farm interests.

Kevin Mahalko’s family-run organic dairy farm, with its 45 milk cows near the Taylor County village of Gilman, is just over 1,000 miles from Washington, DC. But Mahalko, along with farmers all across Wisconsin, are closely watching as a new secretary gets ready to take over the beleaguered US Department of Agriculture, a department that the former secretary Sonny Perdue did his best to dismantle, at least in certain functions, like producing the data and science that are integral to good farm and food policy.

In Wisconsin, the agricultural hardships are easy to spot, as dairy and other farms go out of business and small towns dry up.

“A lot of people still want to get into farming,” said Mahalko from the 300-acre farm he operates mainly with his parents. “But these days it is pretty rough.”

Pretty rough is an understatement. In a 2019 seminal series, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed “Dairyland in Distress” pointing out that in 2014 there were more than 10,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin and in five years, more than a quarter went out of business, with another 818 farms lost in 2019.  In 2020, Wisconsin lost about 360 dairy farms and the total has slipped under 7,000, according to the PBS’ Frontline.

“There is a huge passion to still farm,” Mahalko said. “There are all these roadblocks that make it difficult.”

While cheese demand is up, dairy farmers have been whalloped by a big drop in milk consumption, soaring production levels per cow, and the resulting severe depression in market prices that only large conglomerates can withstand.

“We have lost more and more dairy farms in the last few years, and those are the smaller dairy farms we are losing,” said Nick Levendofsky, director of government relations at Wisconsin Farmers Union, “and big dairy keeps getting bigger. That is an issue he has to be understanding of.”

“He” is Tom Vilsack, who served eight years as the secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) under former President Obama and who has been tabbed by President Biden to return as secretary.

“It was more of a surprise than anything,” Levendofsky said of Biden’s choice of Vilsack, given that Vilsack already had served two terms as secretary and seemed comfortable in “the corporate world” as president and CEO of the Dairy Export Council. Levendofsky and others said they thought Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) seemed more likely.

However, Levendofsky said that “after the surprise went away” he was okay with the pick, adding, “We need somebody to come in right away and not need on-the-job-training and not need USDA 101.”

That is a sentiment echoed frequently about Vilsack—that the former two-term Iowa governor will be able to take the reins on day one and start addressing the tremendous issues facing US agriculture in general and those in Wisconsin in particular.

“You will see a secretary who deeply understands the challenges facing farmers in Wisconsin,” said Jim Mulhern, a Portage, Wisconsin native and president of the National Milk Producers Federation since 2014.

Addressing the challenges like those facing Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, Mulhern said, “is going to be a priority for him. The challenges in dairy are real and considerable. The pressure on smaller farmers continues because of the volatility in milk prices and the wide range of cost structures across dairy farms.”

Tom Vilsack (l), President Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture, and Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. (Photo courtesy of Jim Mulhern)

Brad Pfaff, a newly elected Wisconsin state senator from Onalaska, worked with Vilsack during the Obama administration when Pfaff was executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Wisconsin and later as USDA deputy administrator for farm programs.

“I think he will do excellent work,” Pfaff said. “He knows us. He’s from the Upper Midwest and he knows production agriculture. He knows farmers, and he knows the connection between farms and rural communities.”

Pete Hardin has a 180-degree point of view on Vilsack. For more than 34 years, Hardin has been producing The Milkweed, a monthly dairy newspaper that takes no prisoners, Vilsack included.  In fact, whenever Vilsack is mentioned in The Milkweed, the “s” in his name is turned into a dollar sign, which Hardin says points out the lucrative jobs and “side gigs” Vilsack has had since leaving the USDA last time, detailed by the Revolving Door Project here.

“He is going to be a bad secretary,” Hardin said with his typical bluntness. “I wish we had somebody I had more faith in.”

Hardin has a vast number of concerns about Vilsack besides his wealth, and they include: previously working to have the USDA promote low-fat and no-fat dairy products to the detriment of whole milk production and sales; refusing to act on documented claims that organic grain from the Black Sea region and organic milk from west Texas were not organic at all; allowing the US in 2015 to import beef from Brazil and Argentina, even as those countries had an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which eventually contributed to collapse of beef prices; and not addressing racial issues both inside the USDA and in farming in general.

“I think Vilsack is terrible, and the only good thing to say about him is that he is the devil we know,” Hardin said.

Back on the farm in Taylor County, Mahalko said he really hopes that Vilsack embraces the notion that small, family-owned farms are the backbone of Wisconsin’s rural economy.

“The biggest problem in agriculture is the decline in the number of family farms,” Mahalko said.  “Whatever it takes to preserve small farms, we have to get a policy to reverse the trend from industrial scale agriculture and get back to smaller agriculture.”

Mahalko, who has been very involved in statewide organic farming organizations, said Vilsack must address the increased “vertical integration” in dairy and other agricultural areas.  “I’ve seen nothing but negative from it” as smaller farms have given way to large operations.

Mahalko also said he hopes that Vilsack takes a look at the Dairy Together plan advocated by Farmers Unions across the country, as well as the National Farmers Organization that advocates for a federal milk policy balancing supply with “profitable demand.” This kind of policy, he said, would ensure “more of a possibility that a farm is going to be localized and not being too big to manage.” 

The concentration of farming into fewer and fewer producers and processors needs to be a high priority for Vilsack, Levendofsky said.

“There are so many big issues that need to be dealt with,” Levendofksy said of the state of agriculture. “For me, it’s the antitrust issue and [industry] concentration issues.”

That issue came to the forefront during the pandemic, he said, when meat packing plants had to go offline due to virus outbreaks, leading to meat shortages in many areas of the country.

“It showed how centralized our food system has become,” Levendofsky said, “and how important it is for us to decentralize it.  When the next pandemic hits, we don’t want to repeat the same issues.”

Mulhern believes that Vilsack will be willing to address antitrust issues, saying he has called for an antitrust task force in agriculture and food processing, and “he’s indicated he wants to work with the Department of Justice on antitrust legislation wherever it is warranted.”

Mulhern said he believes Vilsack will also make agriculture’s role in combating climate-change a top issue. “He sees agriculture as part of the solution and not part of the problem” of climate change, he said. “He is well-versed in that issue,” which includes “changing agricultural practices to eliminate waste and inefficiency.”

Pfaff said he hopes that Vilsack works from the outset “to bridge the rural-urban divide. That takes tremendous communication and outreach to put yourself in different communities and hear different perspectives.”

Pfaff and others said it is important to recognize that the USDA has responsibilities over many areas that don’t involve production farming. “The department impacts every citizen of the US,” he said.

These areas include farm production and conservation; food safety; marketing and regulatory programs; natural resources and environment; research, education and economics; rural development; trade and foreign agricultural affairs; and food, nutrition and consumer services.

Hardin zeroed in on this last area when asked what the first thing he wanted Vilsack to do when he took office.

“Stop the food boxes,” Hardin said, referring to the program the USDA put in place to distribute essential food to needy people through non-profits. The boxes were assembled by successful bidders, and critics like Hardin contend former President Trump wanted a way to address food insecurity without increasing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).

“That’s a hell of a lot of inefficiency,” Hardin said. “It would be a lot more efficient for the whole food chain if people in food need got supplemental food cards they could spend on food products at the local supermarket.”

Vilsack easily cleared his confirmation hearing on Feb. 2 and is expected to have an easy time with the full Senate.

When that confirmation happens, Kevin Mahalko had one simple request of the new secretary: “I think what we need from USDA is a concentrated effort to get new farmers in.”