Money in Politics

Small Farmers Balk at Another Big Agriculture Appointment

Then-President-elect Biden introduces Tom Vilsack as his incoming agriculture secretary in Wilmington, DE, on Dec. 11, 2020.


(Image: Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s choice of communications chief is rankling progressive and rural family farmers already concerned that Vilsack favors big agriculture at the expense of family farms.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Director of Communications Matt Herrick, appointed by Vilsack on Jan. 21, was previously a senior vice president at a national trade group called the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). Herrick had worked for Vilsack before, during Vilsack’s USDA tenure under Pres. Obama.

With one exception, farm groups contacted by TYT voiced no specific concerns about Herrick. But all were displeased with Vilsack pulling top people from big agriculture, specifically IDFA. The IDFA spent $750,000 on lobbying last year, including pushing multiple positions directly to the USDA.

The USDA press office did not immediately respond to TYT’s emailed questions, including whether Herrick will recuse himself from matters related to the IDFA or dairy generally. The IDFA also did not respond to questions from TYT, including a request for its 2019 tax filing, which it is required by law to make available to the public. In the absence of that filing, Herrick’s IDFA compensation remains unknown; its 2018 filing shows base compensation for officers at Herrick’s level ranging from $267,000 to $414,500.

In rural America, small dairy farms have been disappearing at a troubling rate. And virtual extinction is seen as a real possibility.

Organic farms, in particular, have complained that the USDA -- under both Pres. Trump and Obama -- failed to enforce federal standards created to prevent large industrial farms from marketing their dairy products as organic.

Paul Adams, whose Wisconsin organic dairy farm failed last year, appeared in 2020 Biden campaign videos. Nevertheless, Adams blamed Vilsack for “quietly let[ting] big Ag overrun those pesky little Organic producers.” After Biden last year announced that Vilsack would run USDA again, Adams said that with Vilsack back at USDA, “CEOs can be great at consolidating wealth at any cost. Did it before will do it again...Vilsack sucks.”

Most farm advocates who spoke with TYT similarly focused their criticisms on Vilsack and were not familiar with Herrick. In a 2017 interview, while he was working at the public-relations firm Story Partners, he said, “I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with people who produce food—from smallholders in conflict-affected areas to larger, super-efficient producers in the U.S. That connection is an important one for me.”

Also in the interview, Herrick said of his public-relations work, “I want to help people develop an appreciation for our food system, for those who cultivate the land to produce our food, for the innovation required to feed billions, and for the totality of the infrastructure required to move such an array of products to customers around the world.”

The USDA did not include Herrick’s work at Story Partners in the announcement of his appointment. It also did not say that the International Dairy Food Association consists primarily of large food companies, not farmers. In fact, IDFA’s members are big food manufacturers and marketers that stand to profit the less they have to pay the dairy farms that supply them.

IDFA members include food industry trade groups; packagers; Kroger, H-E-B, and Publix supermarkets; and nationally known food brands such as Chobani, fairlife (a Coca-Cola milk company), Kraft Heinz, Land O’Lakes, Nestle, Sargento, Turkey Hill, and Yoplait.

All told, IDFA says its members account for more than 85 percent of the milk and other dairy products made and marketed in the U.S. Even some financial-services companies -- Bank of America and JP Morgan, for example -- belong to the IDFA.

IDFA, in other words, is dominated by exactly the kinds of companies that stand to profit from the consolidation that’s squeezing out small, family farms.

Although Herrick’s Twitter profile mentions his past affiliations with OxFam and the Rockefeller Foundation, both Story Partners and IDFA are absent. And IDFA has serious business before the USDA.

Lobbying records show that the IDFA routinely lobbies the USDA on issues including trade and federal definitions of what counts as dairy.

IDFA’s lobbyists, Dave Carlin and Donald Grady, participated with Herrick in IDFA meetings, according to IDFA meeting notes. Grady and others from the IDFA liked Herrick’s 2019 Tweet celebrating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as “a great win for US dairy…”

While the USMCA did slightly increase access to the dairy market in Canada -- which has a supply management system to protect farmers from price fluctuations -- few benefits flowed to small U.S. dairy farms. A working paper by the International Monetary Fund concluded that the USMCA's benefits would be “very small and macroeconomically insignificant.”

A Dairy Together blog posting re-posted by the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) called the USMCA, “A bad deal for farmers.” While the USMCA benefits big food companies eyeing new markets, the post concludes that it “...does nothing to...limit the increasing the US dairy industry.”

Others have criticized IDFA for failing to support systems such as supply management that could protect dairy prices for small farms.

Arden Tewksbury, consulting manager of the Progressive Agriculture Organization in Pennsylvania, said he wasn’t familiar with Herrick. But when informed of Herrick’s résumé, Tewksbury said, “When you say IDFA, a bomb goes off in my head.”

Tweksbury added, “I don’t know this guy, so I can’t condemn him, but I guess I’m surprised [Vilsack] is bringing in somebody who’s been from IDFA...they never do anything to help dairy farmers get a fair price.”

John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, offered specific criticisms of Herrick. “Herrick has helped grease the skids for globalization regimes, undermining U.S. domestic food sovereignty, and thwarted consumer food safety and right to know.” (Makers of dairy products have pursued government policies to let them use dairy byproducts, and cheap dairy imports, without disclosure.)

NFFC Board President Jim Goodman said, “I don't know a lot about Matt Herrick, but if he worked at IDFA, I would wonder if his loyalties lie with farmers getting a fair price or processors/marketers making a huge profit.” Goodman -- like Paul Adams, a Wisconsin dairy farmer -- was also critical when Biden tapped VIlsack to return to the USDA.

According to Peck, “The IDFA is basically a U.S. front group for the global dairy industry, dominated by processors who could care less about where they source their dairy products from or paying dairy farmers a fair (parity) price for their work.”

Peck said, “That Biden would be so willing to recycle someone like Herrick who served under both Bush and Obama shows the grip of corporate agribusiness over U.S. food/farm policy, regardless of which party is in the White House."

Biden has shown little concern about the potential political pitfalls of appointing Vilsack, who not only angered black farmers during his USDA tenure, but, like Herrick, is returning after working for big dairy interests. In between his stints running the USDA, Vilsack was president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

And Democrats may have missed a political opportunity with Herrick’s appointment, according to Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project. "One of the biggest reasons Democrats don't adequately appreciate the political upside of running the executive branch is that they don't understand the communications upsides of running an entity that has the capacity to fight Big Business on behalf of ordinary Americans,” Hauser said.

“A communications staffer who spends all of their time identifying the potential benefits of their Department taking on populist fights makes it much more likely political policy makers take on overdue battles with, say, Big Ag,” Hauser explained. “Herrick's background makes me skeptical he will wake up each morning seeking a corporate villain to highlight and punch."

One former Obama USDA official put it more bluntly: “Biden wouldn’t appoint an Exxon Mobil person to EPA or right-to-life for HHS [Health and Human Services] but it’s ok to appoint dairy farmers’ mortal enemy to do PR for USDA? How can family farmers trust USDA?”

The former official said that “IDFA is really awful” but that even though Herrick's announcement mentioned his IDFA ties, “no one picked up on it since Dems just don’t care.”

“Herrick is nice, just like most of my USDA colleagues are nice people...but many of them went to lobby or work for Big Ag...And there are us pro-family farm populists who are disgusted and disillusioned with that. But it’s Washington, right?”

When Tewksbury was asked who Vilsack should turn to, instead of Big Agriculture veterans, to help run the USDA, he didn’t offer any names. “I guess we’ve never been asked these questions,” he said.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

With additional research and reporting by TYT Investigates News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and Intern Jamia Zarzuela, and assistance from members of the TYT Army.

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