Josh Sosland PortraitWhile the same individual appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee seeking confirmation as Secretary of Agriculture in 2009 and 2021, the approach taken in Tom Vilsack’s prepared remarks each time could hardly have differed more. “Farmers and ranchers,” a central Department of Agriculture constituency, were at the forefront of Mr. Vilsack’s 2009 testimony, appearing in the second sentence following his introductory words. By contrast, last week, the terms “farmers” and “ranchers” were not uttered together until 663 words into, more than 80% of the way through, his testimony.

The difference likely reflected a debate in the Democratic party over the priorities of President Biden’s Department of Agriculture. Reflecting that tension, Mr. Vilsack pledged that a focus of his administration would be on issues rarely addressed by agriculture secretaries in the past. “Today, the pandemic, racial justice and equity, and climate change must be our priorities.” He promised to “address discrimination in all its forms” across USDA agencies and to “root out generations of systemic racism.”

When it comes to agriculture, per se, Mr. Vilsack’s focus was on regenerative practices, climate change mitigation, renewable energy and local and regional foods. It’s likely that the marked improvement in the health of the farm economy during the past year allowed the nominee to direct most his attention to other priorities in his remarks. But as farmers and ranchers may testify, the health of the farm economy has been anything but certain and will require close attention in the months ahead.