Where are the farmers in the Biden transition?

The Biden transition review team for the Department of Agriculture has 23 members. As is common in transition teams, many of these people have held key positions at the USDA in previous administrations.

Many of them have experience with the USDA’s nutrition programs. That makes sense, because the lion’s share of USDA’s budget goes toward school nutrition and other food welfare programs.

Policy wonks abound. What you will be hard pressed to find is anyone who makes a living producing food.

Two come close.

Jonathan Coppress teaches farm policy at the University of Illinois. He’s a former Farm Service Agency administrator and has experience as a grain merchandiser. He grew up on the family farm, and reportedly has an interest in the corn and soybean operation still worked by his father and brother in Ohio.

Debra Eschmeyer grew up on a farm. She was a nutrition policy adviser to First Lady Michelle Obama and is co-founder of FoodCorps, a nonprofit that connects school kids to healthy foods. She and her husband operated a 22-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm in Ohio as they pursued other policy work.

According to the Center for Presidential Transition, the transition teams “lay the groundwork for governing well in advance of Election Day by building a policy agenda for the new administration, gathering information about federal agencies, vetting potential political appointees and developing a management agenda.”

What’s the agenda?

Leaders from national farm groups met via Zoom with the transition team on Dec. 4. Participants described the discussion as “productive.”

“This administration has promised to do something to fix our labor problems in the first 100 days. We want to make sure they don’t forget. Finding an adequate workforce for our farms is probably the biggest problem we have,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

That must be why there’s a representative of the United Farm Workers Foundation and another from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union on the transition team. But no farmers.

The group’s also expressed concerns about rural infrastructure — roads, bridges and the internet. The transition team has the appropriate experts on those subjects. But no farmers.

We’ve been talking with farmers about what they’d like from the incoming Biden administration. A common theme that has emerged is the desire to be heard, to “have a seat at the table.”

It’s probably too early to tell, but if the transition team is any indication, farmers and ranchers should ensure that the place cards have not already been set and that they are indeed on the list.

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