2020 was a year of enormous loss and tragedy for our country.  In December, we lost a local and state hero, lifetime farming advocate, and TFF subscriber:  Richard Rominger.  Rich was a Winters farmer who became a leader representing California agriculture first as State Secretary of Agriculture during Jerry Brown’s first term, and then later at the federal level as a Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton.  Later in his life, he became a passionate advocate for policies and organizations pushing environmental stewardship and sustainability in agriculture.  All the while, he maintained his connection to our local area both through his family’s now fifth-generation farm and through advocacy such as co-founding the Yolo County Farmland Trust.

For such a well-known and influential person, Rich was amazingly humble and approachable.  I have many distinct memories of attending conferences and workshops where he would approach me to check in, find out how the farm was doing, and simply chat about issues.  He was always curious and insightful — traits that I find are normally lacking in people in leadership positions.  Rich was an inspiration and a role model and will be sorely missed by the sustainable agricultural and Winters communities.  Luckily, his children and grandchildren remain committed to the dual ethos of sustainable agriculture and community service that guided him through his life.  You can find a more complete obituary here.

Over the decades since Rich Rominger represented farmers in our state and federal governments, agriculture has become increasingly politicized at both the state and federal level.  The vast majority of farmers now strongly believe that only one political party represents their interests, and see the other party as actively hostile to their success — and they vote accordingly.  The truth is that as a tiny minority — less than 2% of the national population — farmers’ votes are essentially meaningless.  By vocally supporting only one party, we are forfeiting an opportunity to be heard by the other.

Farmers only real power now is in our real and symbolic role as Providers.  If we cannot succeed economically, it’s not just our problem.  It’s also a problem for the other 98% of Californians and Americans who need to eat every day.  Neither party can actually allow agriculture to fail completely without putting our entire society in jeopardy.

This was proven this past spring during the onset of Covid , when politicians from both parties clearly recognized the severe risk that the pandemic posed to the economic survival of farmers, and thus our entire food system.  The relief bill they passed created the surprisingly bi-partisan and broad-based Coronavirus Food Assistance Program(CFAP), which has not received much media attention.  While most USDA policies tend to focus narrowly on commodity crops grown primarily in the Midwest, the CFAP is open to growers of all sizes and just about all crops who have experienced losses in sales due to the pandemic. In this way, it is a template for how agricultural assistance programs can work to address the massive threat that climate change poses to farmers in the U.S. and help guarantee our nation’s food security in the future.  It also offers a path out of the polarizing politics that currently infect agriculture.

Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of the U.S.D.A. shows no indication that his administration will seek a new path forward in agricultural policy — or even that he is interested in the subject at all.  Selecting Tom Vilsack — who held the exact same role in both Obama administrations — is literally a “Do-Over” that fails to acknowledge that anything in the world of agriculture has changed since 2016.  It seems like a giant missed opportunity, especially given Biden’s stated intentions to make climate change one of his top priorities.

I would really would have liked to ask Rich Rominger about Biden’s choice of Vilsack.  I’m certain his opinion would be nuanced, thoughtful and 100% accurate.  I’m sorry I won’t get a chance, and I will sorely miss his wisdom on this and many other topics.