Flash in the Pan 

Sizing up Vilsack

When former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s name first surfaced as a possible secretary of agriculture, it triggered an outcry among progressive foodies. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) organized a massive campaign in which 20,000 e-mails opposing Vilsack were sent to the transition team.

The OCA prematurely declared this campaign a success, when Vilsack’s name appeared to have been dropped from consideration. High on hope, hype and the smell of big-ag blood, a swarm of foodies rushed in to suggest reform-minded alternatives. But these hopes were tossed under the bus last week when President-elect Barack Obama named Vilsack his choice after all.

“Tom has led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy we use,” Obama said.

That Vilsack is a proponent of ethanol and biotech shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Obama campaigned on the same page. Both politicians support corn-based ethanol as a transitional fuel source while we move toward more advanced cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural waste. And like Obama, Vilsack is a rare farm state politician opposed to big agriculture subsidies.

One other note, arguably to Vilsack’s credit: He supports ethanol as part of a “kitchen sink” strategy necessary to combat global warming; during his brief bid for the Democratic nomination he advocated a 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

Vilsack told Grist in a February 2007 interview that he wants to promote organic farming. This sounds nice, but it’s actually an ambiguous statement given that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) controls the very definition of “organic.” And the Biotechnology Industry Council, which named Vilsack “Governor of the Year” in 2001, has been pushing to expand the definition of USDA organic to include cloned animals. As oxymoronic as organically grown cloned beef may sound, that remains a possibility, especially with Vilsack at the helm. He’s been a cheerleader for TransOva, an Iowa corporation specializing in bovine cloning and a host of other services that could make it possible for cows to never have sex again.

Meanwhile, Vislack is reported to have frequently palled around with Monsanto executives while governor, including taking rides on the corporate jet, and supported legislation that would take away the rights of cities and counties to restrict the use and distribution of genetically modified seeds, leaving those decisions to the state.

Just about the only positive thing that can be said about Vilsack, from an anti-genetically modified viewpoint, is that he supports labeling of genetically modified ingredients in food.

In addition to food safety and security, rural economies and livelihoods, and other issues usually associated with agriculture, the USDA also has a big effect on environmental quality—both for reasons related to agricultural practices and because the secretary of agriculture oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

According to Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, “I’d have a hard time believing that the former governor of Iowa has much experience with the myriad issues facing public lands management. Hopefully, he realizes that forest ecosystems are very different from agriculture crops.”

In an interview last May, then-candidate Obama told me: “As president, I would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large factory farms…I also support efforts to provide more meaningful local control over these
factory farms.”

Where Vilsack stands on these points is not entirely clear. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) expanded dramatically in Iowa while Vilsack was governor. In addition to driving smaller operations out of business, CAFO’s are known as some of the worst polluters of any industry.

On the other hand, Vilsack vetoed a bill in 2004 that would have expanded the ability of CAFO’s to pollute the air, and in 2006 he vetoed a bill that would have limited the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ authority in granting permits to CAFOs. Perhaps it’s safe to say that if Vilsack won’t work against factory farms, he’ll at least clean them up.

This kind of centrism has earned Vilsack lukewarm endorsements from some of the larger mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The OCA, meanwhile, is back on the warpath, having launched StopVilsack.org in hopes of mobilizing opposition to Vilsack’s confirmation through an online petition.

Koehler sees the divide among activist groups, with regard to Vilsack’s appointment, as a case of the “haves,” which he describes as the “well-funded, politically connected groups that have forfeited their voices for the sake of politics and money” and the “have-nots,” or the “small, grassroots groups, unbeholden, who speak their minds.”


The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., is opting for the pragmatic approach. “We will work with Vilsack to keep rural entrepreneurship, agricultural conservation and family farming and ranching at the forefront of these critical debates,” Steph Larsen, rural policy organizer, told me.

“Many of the decisions about the day-to-day operations of USDA are made by other political appointments besides the secretary of agriculture,” adds Larson, “and we need good partners there too.”


Ask Ari: Old-school alcohol

Q: I attempted to follow a rural legend I’d heard of, which I guess is how applejack was traditionally made. I placed three different buckets outside—each holding two gallons of mead—when the temps dropped to minus 10 at my place. In the morning the mixture had a thick slushy layer of ice. I broke the ice and mixed and then siphoned the mead, leaving behind clear ice crystals of water and taking away a liquid with higher alcohol content. I repeated this process the following night and once again. Less ice formed each night.

I ended up with eight mason jars of reduced mead from 6 gallons. It sounds risky and it felt absurd placing 6 gallons of my prized mead outside overnight, but in tasting the final product I am completely impressed. The mead tastes almost like a cordial, not as hot as whiskey but very warm and delicately sweet with all the floral notes still in tact. The beauty of the freeze-distillation process is there is no heat involved and I never pasteurize the honey—a raw alcohol if there is such a thing.

How special will it be to drink this ice cold in July, or a on a bow hunt in September? Anyways, I thought you’d enjoy hearing of this process.

Do you want to try some?

—Magical Mead


A: Yes.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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