President-elect Joe Biden plucked Tom Vilsack to serve as agricultural secretary, a former Iowa governor who filled the role under President Obama.

But some farmers are sure to be outraged by the decision, as they were when Biden hit the campaign trail with Vilsack, who’s been under fire over his $1 million-a-year job with a group that is funded by mandatory fees from struggling dairy farmers.

Vilsack and Biden have a long-standing history, going back to when the then-mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, endorsed Biden’s first presidential run in 1988. 

Vilsack spent the last four years as a dairy industry lobbyist with the trade group U.S. Dairy Export Council. 


There, he earned $1 million in salary in 2018 as the highest paid executive at Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit responsible for promoting milk goods and funded directly by mandatory fees from dairy farmers. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this year exposed the bloated salaries of the top 10 dairy executives that topped $8 million at a time when many dairy farmers are on the brink of financial ruin amid a downturn in milk prices.

Under federal law, farmers are required to pay 15 cents for each 100 pounds of milk they sell into a so-called “checkoff” program to promote and advertise their products. Ten cents goes to local and regional programs and 5 cents to fund national programs, such as Dairy Management, where Vilsack is executive vice president.

Checkoff fees in various agricultural sectors have helped fund catchy campaigns like “Got Milk?” "Pork. The Other White Meat," "The Incredible, Edible Egg" and "Beef: It's What's for Dinner."

But the dairy market has been especially tough recently with farmers blaming an oversupply of milk, reduced demand and more alternatives like soy and almond milk.

In 2017, 1,600 dairy farms shuttered nationwide, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Conditions are so bad that Dean Foods, America’s largest dairy producer, filed for bankruptcy last month. And a milk co-op last year sent Northeast dairy farmers a list of mental health services and a suicide prevention hotline number.

With money so tight, dairy farmers are fuming that their checkoff fees are padding the pockets of people like Vilsack.

“Vice President Biden clearly didn’t think through the ramifications of having someone like Secretary Vilsack on the bus tour and writing your agriculture policy when the former secretary is taking a million dollars out of the pockets of dairy farmers across the country,” Jake Davis, national policy director at Family Farm Action, a nonprofit progressive advocacy group aimed at curbing corporate agribusiness growth, said when Biden and Vilsack campaigned together.

Dairy Management Inc. released a statement in Vilsack's defense to Fox News from its chair Marilyn Hershey, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer.

“We hired Secretary Tom Vilsack to expand U.S. dairy’s presence in key global markets,” the statement said. “Under his leadership over the last three years, U.S. dairy exports reached an all-time high in 2018, with 16 percent of U.S. dairy being sold to global markets."


Even before Vilsack crossed over to the lobbying sector, he presided over a USDA that “sent a lower share of loan dollars to Black farmers than it had under President Bush,” according to an investigation by The Counter. 

Some point to USDA and federal farm policy for the number of Black farmers decreasing by an astounding 90 percent in the 20th century.  

A 2012 Census of Agriculture, conducted by the USDA, found a 9 percent increase in Black farmers, and Vilsack often boasted of this number. 

But a two-year investigation by The Counter found: “Though USDA came to enjoy a reputation among policymakers and the press as a steady force for good in the lives of historically marginalized farmers, Vilsack and others in the department made cosmetic changes, and little else.”

Under Vilsack, the publication found that USDA employees foreclosed on Black farmers and did not resolve outstanding discrimination complaints. 

Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton, was tapped to advise the secretary on civil rights complaints filed under the Bush administration. Wright told The Counter that Vilsack had asked him to handle the 14,000 leftover discrimination complaints from the USDA’s civil rights office, many of which alleged that the USDA had withheld loans. Wright said he would review the complaints and come up with a plan, but his efforts amounted to little more than paper shuffling.


“If I had known that the only thing I was going to do was to create paperwork for [Vilsack’s] resume, I wouldn’t have gone back,” Wright told the news outlet. “I went back because I thought we were going to address the issue.”

“I’m convinced he was never committed,” he said of Vilsack.

Fox News' Marisa Schultz contributed to this report.