FARGO — North Dakota agriculture leaders made the most of their opportunity to talk to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday, giving their positions on a host of topics ranging from trade to fake meat.
Perdue noted North Dakota was the 34th state he has visited since being sworn in as the nation’s top agriculture official in April 2017. The visits are important to understanding the diverse issues impacting agriculture across the nation, he said.
“I love to hear it firsthand,” Perdue said.
Perdue got a diverse outlook during a roundtable at the North Dakota State University Greenhouse, where discussion included trade, research, crop insurance, disaster programs, fake meat, ethanol, conservation, wetland determinations, the Trump administration’s budget proposals for USDA, the 199A provision in the recently passed tax bill, trucking and grazing on public lands.
Perdue’s visit included a stop at The Forum newspaper, along with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who invited Perdue to the state, and tours of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Red River Valley Agriculture Research Center, and American Crystal Sugar Co.’s sugar beet processing facility in Moorhead, Minn. He also attended a luncheon with North Dakota Collegiate Farm Bureau members.
The roundtable, which also included Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Gov. Doug Burgum and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, drew comments from most participants about trade — the importance of maintaining and expanding trade, issues of fair trade, and what would happen if the U.S. lost access to valuable markets like Canada, Mexico, China and Japan.
Perdue, during his meeting with The Forum, said he has relayed the ag community’s “anxiety” about trade issues to President Donald Trump. During the roundtable, he relayed a recent incident when he and the president were talking about the North American Free Trade Agreement and Perdue had a coughing fit. When Trump asked if he was OK, Perdue said he replied, “I just get choked up when you start talking about withdrawing from NAFTA.”
The idea of fair trade, rather than free trade, also came up. Mark Martinson, president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association, asked that the issue of Canada grading all U.S. durum as feed-grade be brought up in trade negotiations. Perdue said that issue is similar to some of Canada’s protectionist dairy regulations.
Perdue said he has been heartened by Trump’s recent openness to the possibility of rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership.
“This is a president who is willing to change his mind,” he said.
Hoeven said Perdue has been proactive on not only advocating for agriculture but also making plans for possible effects of trade issues.
“He’s not only working on it,” Hoeven said. “He’s anticipating it and working on solutions.”
While Perdue said he wasn’t interested in articulating any “moral line” he has regarding actions by the president and his administration that would make him leave his cabinet post, Perdue stressed the importance of “honor and integrity.” He commended the way Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic advisor, announced his resignation over the president’s announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs earlier this week.
“I think Gary Cohn did it in a fairly honorable way,” he said.
Perdue, who has deep involvement in agriculture from growing up on a farm to becoming a veterinarian to owning an agribusiness and serving as Georgia governor, seemed comfortable with the crowd in North Dakota and its questions and viewpoints.
“You’re welcome to my farm anytime you like,” Craig Olson, president of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, told him.
“Trust me to drive a combine?” Perdue asked.
Olson confirmed he would allow that.
Other topics of note from Perdue’s visit to North Dakota include:
•The importance of maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard. Corn and soybean groups stressed the negative market impacts that could come from changes to ethanol and biodiesel programs.
•The good and bad of the USDA’s response to last summer’s drought. Burgum and Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said the department’s response was fast, but Ellingson said some producers discovered inconsistencies between regulations and law that restricted coverage under the Livestock Forage Program.
•The need for continued conservation funding. Hoeven said Conservation Reserve Program acres will likely increase from 24 million. A House proposal would put it at 30 million acres.
•The likelihood of a fix to the Section 199A provision of the tax bill. Hoeven said that should be dealt with soon, and it will be retroactive. The omnibus bill is a possible vehicle for that, he said.
•Problems with water management and wetlands determinations. Participants in the roundtable urged Perdue to make processes related to the issue easier and faster to manage.
•Struggles of getting the USDA fully staffed. Perdue, during his visit with the newspaper, expressed annoyance at the time it’s taken to get nominees for positions in his department appointed and confirmed, placing the blame on the lengthy clearance process and delays by the U.S. Senate. However, he said the “vision and team” for his USDA are coming together, and he praised the “dedicated, passionate career people” within the department who “breathe and sleep ag.”
•Problems with the Trump administration’s budget proposals regarding ag programs. Perdue said he’s trying to make the case for less substantial cuts to the USDA’s budget than what the Trump Administration has proposed. “Why do you think I’m here with the chairman of Senate Ag Appropriations?” he asked, referring to Hoeven.