Perdue: It's time for producers to be focus of USDA

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

Soon after Sonny Perdue was sworn into office as the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he set about reorienting the USDA with a new focus: producers.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue talks to Iowa farmers during a May 5 stop in A speech Friday in Nevada, IA.

As chair of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, Perdue set off on two multi-state tours in an RV, traveling over 2,200 miles in his visits to 30 states, listening to the voices of those living in rural America. 

"You have no better way of assessing the situation than to speak directly to the people of the heartland," Perdue said during the closing ceremonies at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 2018 annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show in Nashville, TN. "While the task force has worked tirelessly to identify solutions to the problems plaguing our rural communities, there is more work ahead."

As Perdue crisscrossed the country, he said it was clear that rural Americans were tired of 'slogans and lip service'.

"It was clear that people believe the folks in Washington D.C. have stopped listening to rural America over the years," Perdue said. "In fields, dairy barns, machine sheds, front yards and gymnasiums, thousands of people came out to these town hall meetings to express their frustrations and to offer their suggestions. In short, we found citizens with a real hunger to be heard."

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue shucks an ear of corn as he talks with volunteers and staff picking a field of sweet corn by hand during a tour of the Hunger Task Force Farm in Franklin, WI, as part of Perdue's RV tour in August.

Trade a top priority

Among the issues brought forth by farmers is the future of exports and trade agreements, most importantly NAFTA.

"I know there's a certain amount of anxiety about what's going on in trade these days. We know that trade is the key to rural and farm prosperity, with Canada and Mexico continuing to be major markets for U.S. exports," Perdue said.

While the successful completion and improvement of the NAFTA negotiations remains a top priority of the Trump administration, it takes a collective effort to get the deal done.

"But to get a deal, we need all sides to seriously roll up their sleeves and get to work," he said. "We have put a number of proposals on the table to modernize NAFTA, and critically for agriculture, to address key sectors left out of the original agreement—dairy and poultry tariffs in Canada. Now we want to see our negotiating partners step up and engage in meaningful conversation so we can get the deal done."

Perdue says he has faith in President Donald Trump's skills as a negotiator and is "quite confident" that he will strike the best possible deal for the U.S.

UW-Madison Rural Development Economist Steve Deller says the nation's farms haven't been on Trump's priority list.

"Right now, all of the discussion on immigration and trade is causing a lot of angst because we don't know what is going to happen," Deller said. "What drives (businesses) nuts is when rules are haphazardly enforced or keep changing."

Deller said he's hopeful that Perdue, rather than Trump, will take charge of the administration’s decisions regarding farm policies. 

When Perdue was governor of Georgia, he took a holistic view of rural development and understood the farm economy, according to Deller. 

"My hope is that Trump lets Perdue do what needs to be done," he said.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks to attendees at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.

Record of success

Since he was sworn into his role as secretary last April, Perdue says the USDA has already built a record of success making trade a priority. This emphasis also included the creation of the first ever undersecretary position for Trade and Ag Affairs.

"After 13 years American beef is back in China, we signed a protocol allowing exports of U.S. rice to China, the European Union has eased regulations on citrus exports, Vietnam has resumed imports of U.S. distiller's grain, South Korea has lifted its ban on imports of poultry, and we struck a deal to get American pork back into Argentina for the first time since 1992," Perdue pointed out. 

Following President Trump's directive, Perdue says the USDA has begun rolling back "excessive, onerous government regulations" that stood in the way of farmers and ranchers—most notably, the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

"At the USDA, we've done our part in lifting the mill stone of regulatory burden. We've already identified 27 final rules for elimination in 2018 that will save over $56 million annually," he said. "And friends, we are just getting started."

Perdue encouraged producers to visit the newly unveiled Rural Prosperity website, which includes a link for farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers to submit comments and ideas on regulatory reform.

Caring for farmers

Perdue highlighted the USDA's Economic Research Service report that shows that 90% of American farms are family farms that account for more than 90% of all U.S. ag production.

President Donald Trump hands an executive order to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) after reading it at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.

"And here's what the president understands; he knows that family farms are also small businesses. He also knows that you must earn profit in order to provide for your family. The good news is that help not only is on the way, it's already here," said Perdue citing recent tax reform as a solution that will allow farmers to keep more of what they earn in order to reinvest in their operations and to take care of their families.

"Farming is a great lifestyle but you have to have a little money to stay in it," Perdue said.

Perdue says he and members of the administration's Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity took their charge seriously to investigate the circumstances and situations facing rural America, and to formulate concrete solutions.

Concrete solutions

The new Ag Secretary officially presented President Trump with the final report that contains more than 100 practical, actionable recommendations for economic growth in five key areas: e-connectivity; quality of life; rural workforce; technology and economic development.

The Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity identified over 100 actions for the federal government to consider in order to achieve a vision of a better rural America. These actions include legislative, regulatory, and policy changes and were built around these key indicators.

"It's fitting that we're doing this here today at your annual meeting as you're the people who live every day with the policies and decisions made in D.C.. And while the overall economy is booming again...but for anyone who lives in what used to be called the 'flyover country', knows that rural America has not kept pace," Perdue told the crowd.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said his organization applauds the Task Force and Perdue on their efforts to help rural America grow and thrive.

"For too long, rural communities have lagged behind their urban counterparts, both socially and economically, and the federal government has not provided the tools or funding necessary to bridge the gap," Johnson said. "The priorities outlined in the report are essential to tackling longstanding disparities, by both bolstering the economies of as well as improving the quality of life within rural communities."

Rick Barrett contributed to this story.