By Sara Wyant
Special to the Farm Forum
The recent nomination hearing for Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, was a relative “love fest” with the Senate Agriculture Committee.
He easily fended off questions about President Donald Trump’s proposed USDA budget cuts and concerns from Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who said it was clear that “rural America was an afterthought,” because the president waited until last to name him as a Cabinet pick.
Noting members’ concerns about the late appointment, Perdue lobbed back: “With all of the humility I can muster, I think the president must have saved the best for last.”
He’s certainly off to a strong start – even though it may be a few more weeks before the full Senate will vote on his nomination and likely confirmation. Once at the helm of USDA, he’ll face much stronger opposition on many of his key issues.
But for now, Perdue pledged to be a “tenacious advocate and fighter” for farmers within the administration. Asked about the upcoming farm bill, he described himself as a “fact-based, data-driven decision maker” and said he would try to address requests for help from dairy and cotton producers – even before the next farm bill is written.
During the hearing, committee members pressed Perdue on a range of regional concerns, including biofuels and forest management, as well as trade policy.
Stabenow pushed the former Georgia governor to be an independent voice within the administration on budget issues.
Perdue assured her he had nothing to do with Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, which called for cutting the “discretionary” portion of USDA’s budget by 21 percent. “You probably saw it before I did. I obviously have some concern,” he said of the budget.
Roberts led off the questioning by seeking Perdue’s commitment to be a forceful advocate for agriculture on trade policy. Roberts repeated his concern that too many people in the administration will have authority on trade policy, including Peter Navarro, the China hawk who heads the new National Trade Council.
“Agriculture needs a strong advocate, a tenacious advocate with regard to trade,” Perdue said, indicating that he had already discussed the issue with Lighthizer and Ross. “We’re blessed in this nation to be able to produce more than we can consume.”
The former Georgia governor also expressed support for easing financial restrictions on trade with Cuba.
“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” he said.
Later, Perdue told Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., that he would be USDA’s “chief salesman around the world” and would work “side by side” with Lighthizer and Ross. USDA will be “intimately involved in the personal, on-the-ground, boots-on-the-ground negotiations around the world,” Perdue said.
Trump’s Ag Day message
Perdue’s supportive messages were similar to those issued by the president himself, in a proclamation honoring March 21 as National Agriculture Day.
It was the first time a sitting United States president has signed a presidential proclamation honoring National Agriculture Day since President Bill Clinton.
“America’s farmers and ranchers help feed the world, fuel our Nation’s economy and lead global markets in output and productivity,” according to the proclamation. “The efficiency of American agriculture has provided this country with abundance our ancestors could not have imagined.”
Trump also noted that “American agriculture is the largest positive contributor to our Nation’s net trade balance, generating 10 percent of our exports and millions of American jobs. America’s farmers and ranchers provide a safe and plentiful food supply, which is vital to our national security. Morever, they safeguard our sustainable resource base for future generations.
“As my administration fights for better trade deals, agriculture will be an important consideration so that its enormous contributions will only increase in the years ahead,” the president noted.
In a preview to Trump’s announcement, Ray Starling, the White House special assistant for agriculture, trade and food assistance, said he hoped that delivering such an important proclamation during the Trump’s first 100 days in office was a sign that “the president will brag on ag.”
Starling, who delivered an upbeat and enthusiastic speech to agricultural leaders at the Agriculture Council of America’s National Agriculture Day breakfast, outlined four key areas where he expects President Trump to focus his ag agenda: Trade, labor, regulatory reform and infrastructure.
The president is committed to negotiating trade agreements that “secure open and equitable access to foreign markets, that insist upon the use of sound science, that eliminate tariffs or subsidy regimes that unfairly disadvantage American products and hold our trading partners accountable when they invoke unfair or unjustified market practices,” Starling said.
“Given the American farmers’ impressive ability to increase productivity and output at a rate much higher than we are able to consume in our country, our farmers have to have access to foreign markets,” he added. “Agriculture already helps us win in the race to trade more and we will make sure agriculture continues to win.”
Trump is also committed to providing a reliable, affordable agriculture workforce, Starling said. He cited the need to look at stabilizing the current workforce and address temporary guest worker programs so they are more secure, reliable and easier to use.
“We’re getting to a point where push comes to shove when it comes to access to a reliable workforce,” Starling added.
He also cited the Trump’s plan to halt what he described as “the regulatory onslaught.
“For years our farmers and ranchers have been the victims of one regulatory proposal after another. Significant care will be taken by this administration to evaluate the existing regulatory landscape, determine how to make it less onerous, implement changes that lessen the cumulative impact of needless regulations and give our farmers and agribusinesses a stronger voice in the process used to vet new regulatory proposals.
Equally important, Starling said, was the need to “set up a systemic mechanism across the federal government so that ag will continue to have a voice in the regulatory scene even after this president is no longer president. We want to make sure ag has a seat at the table at Interior, EPA, the Dept. of Labor and other agencies in a real way to evaluate what agencies are doing.”
Starling says the president is also committed to improving infrastructure in Rural America.
“The president realizes that we have been astonishingly successful in producing food, fiber and forestry producers – partly because of agriculture’s infrastructure – including our land grant university system, our extension system and our research collaboratives which are unmatched around the world,” Starling explained.
“The president recognizes the risks facing rural America and realizes we must face many of them head on.”
Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this column.