Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue sees trade, labor and regulations as jobs one, two and three in his new post, he told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday in his first appearance on the House side to discuss his priorities during a more than three-hour-long hearing.
Fielding several questions on trade and his newly created undersecretary for trade position, Perdue said it is a noble endeavor to feed the world and again stated his new U.S. Department of Agriculture mantra: “Do right, and feed everyone.”
He said when he speaks to people involved in agriculture, trade is number one on everyone’s minds. “We’ve got to sell our way out of this supply/demand situation that is depressing prices,” Perdue said.
The new trade undersecretary will be a “million-mile flier” who visits potential customers around the world — someone who wakes up every day with the mission of selling U.S. agricultural products, he said. That individual will also provide expertise and content to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to triumph new sales of agricultural products.
Perdue noted that this Administration already has seen early successes when it comes to understanding the agriculture industry’s trade needs, including work with China on resuming beef trade and dealing with pending biotechnology approvals. He also said many principles from the Trans-Pacific Partnership program are still viable and can be fine-tuned in future negotiations.
“My definition of fair trade is: You don’t have trade unless it is fair for all those involved,” Perdue said.
Another top-of-mind issue Perdue said he hears about is the struggle with labor access. Following the roundtable Perdue had with President Donald Trump and farmers, he said he’s confident that the President understands the contribution immigrant labor has made to the nation’s fields and farms.
Perdue said he’s personally aware that the H-2A program is “essentially unworkable,” and USDA plans to present the Administration with some ideas from a regulatory perspective to streamline the H-2A program to be a dependable and more reliable resource for labor needs. USDA has tapped Kristi Boswell, who formerly worked for the American Farm Bureau Federation, to examine some of those potential regulatory solutions to agriculture’s labor woes.
A commonly discussed topic among the House committee was the livestock industry’s call for vaccine banks for both foot and mouth disease (FMD) and highly pathogenic avian influenza, which Perdue said the committee was wise for considering.
As a former veterinarian, he noted that understands the benefits of vaccination and that the nation cannot afford an FMD scare. “We should look at vaccine banks as insurance. You can’t have a house burn down and take insurance after the fact,” Perdue said, adding that the same holds true for the need to have vaccines available ahead of an outbreak.
Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.) said Perdue’s comments and understanding of the FMD threat were “music to my ears” and noted that finding just three cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the U.S. had devastating trade impacts, and there wasn’t even any animal depopulation. With FMD, he said it “would take years and years to recover the cattle heard and trade.”
Several members questioned Perdue on his reorganization plan, which eliminated the undersecretary for rural development and replaced it with an assistant secretary who reports directly to him. Perdue again played down reports that the move will diminish the insight provided by that USDA mission area.
He said overseeing water systems and utilities as well as looking at the direct needs of the rural economy are things he wanted to be a part of, and the restructuring will give the individual he chooses direct access to him and a stronger influencer of power. Perdue noted that the assistant secretary still would need to be confirmed by the Senate.
He welcomed the committee’s oversight and said he’s willing to show that the change will offer benefits. “Proof is in the pudding,” Perdue said, adding that he’s willing to be held accountable. “I view this as an elevation with influence and access rather than just a title.”
Farm bill fixes
Perdue noted that when the President’s new budget comes out next week, there will be specific requests to look at barriers related to international trade.
Many of the committee members reiterated the need for the next farm bill to offer a fix for the cotton program. House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas) criticized Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) for holding up a budget-neutral fix for cotton without offering assistance to dairy in the omnibus budget package approved several weeks ago.
Conaway said the senators “stabbed cotton farmers in the back” and pitted one segment of agriculture against the other when they tried to require the cotton industry to pay for the dairy industry’s $800 million budget request.
Perdue said the budget deliberations limited his options severely on what kind of immediate assistance he could offer cotton producers, but he didn’t want to give any false hope, because “options are limited.”
He again voiced support for the crop insurance program but said it’s important not to create a situation where producers are farming for the program, which results in some unnatural market forces.
Watch the full committee hearing here. The Senate Agriculture Committee also announced a hearing on the rural economy at 10 a.m. (EST) on May 25. The hearing will be webcast live on ag.senate.gov.