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Kendyl (4), Rocky (8) and Carlee (6) Howard enjoy harvest at the family farm near Dayton.
Photo by Julie Howard

COAXIUM

POLICY

'Roots' tour stops by Washington

'Sonny' weather during ag secretary's Pacific Northwest visit

August/September 2018
By Trista Crossley


To be a farmer means living with uncertainty. But over two days at multiple events last month, Washington state growers made sure to impress upon U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that uncertainty in trade threatens their livelihoods.

Perdue was visiting the Pacific Northwest as part of his “Back to Our Roots” tour. Besides Washington, he also spent time in Idaho, Oregon and Alaska. While in Eastern Washington, he held a breakfast and fireside chat hosted by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in Spokane, ate lunch with producers at The McGregor Company in Colfax and toured Washington State University’s (WSU) agricultural research facilities. The next day, before heading to Oregon and the ports in Vancouver, he and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) held a farm hall breakfast in the Tri-Cities hosted by the Washington Farm Bureau.

Over and over at these events, producers and industry stakeholders told the secretary that tariffs and the lack of trade agreements could devastate the state’s agricultural industry. Perdue acknowledged the threat, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Trump Administration are working on plans to help growers mitigate the situation if necessary. He declined to provide any further details, other than giving Labor Day as a possible, self-imposed deadline to take action.

“I’m not here to talk, I’m here to listen, because we’ve got some anxious things going on right now,” Perdue told growers at the fireside chat, referring to trade issues. He added that President Trump took action against China for its role in stealing U.S. intellectual property. “I think most farmers applauded him for doing that. Farmers are patriots. They are good supporters of doing right and living by the rules, and China hasn’t lived by the rules. I told the president, ‘Our farmers are patriots, Mr. President, but you can’t pay the bank back with patriotism.’”

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), expressed a common sentiment when she pressed the secretary for more details on his plan to help farmers weather the trade storm.

“I know that mitigation is one of your solutions to this problem,” she told him. “You say you have a playbook that you can’t reveal yet. What am I supposed to tell my farmers when they call in in this uncertain time asking me how the government is going to help them get through the trade environment?”

Perdue responded by saying the president has assured him that agricultural producers won’t bear the brunt of trade disruptions. He remained vague on any mitigation plans, however, only saying that the administration and USDA are working on a plan to help producers who are harmed financially by the trade issues.

The Washington Grain Commission (WGC) was also well represented throughout the visit. At the fireside chat, Glen Squires, CEO of the WGC, talked about how easy it can be to lose markets that have taken decades and millions of dollars to develop when the U.S. isn’t part of international trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Later, on a tour of the new greenhouse at WSU, Mike Miller, a WGC commissioner, had the opportunity to point out to Perdue how much collaboration takes place between the wheat industry, WSU and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

“It was an honor to have Secretary Perdue visit, and we appreciate the opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of agriculture in Washington state,” said WAWG President Marci Green. “Producers were able to communicate their concerns directly to him, particularly about trade. While we hope it won’t be necessary, it was reassuring to hear him say his department is working on a plan to help farmers if necessary.”

Perdue encouraged producers to share their questions and concerns with him at usda.gov/tellsonny. Other highlights from Perdue’s visit included:

• TPP. Although President Trump has expressed his preference for bilateral trade agreements, Perdue said he hopes that once issues with America’s top three trade customers—Mexico, Canada and China—are resolved, the president will take another look at the trade agreement.

• Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Sen. Mark Schoesler, who represents Washington’s 9th Legislative District, addressed inconsistencies in CRP that cost the USDA and farmers time and money, such as seed mixes that change each cycle. Schoesler said producers need the flexibility to manage hay and grazing on CRP lands and to make management and replanting decisions. Perdue urged producers to contact their members of Congress as the CRP rules that USDA administers are set in the farm bill.

• Section 32. Perdue said one program USDA is using to help farmers impacted by trade issues is the Section 32 program. Under this program, USDA purchases food crops that can’t be stored, such as cherries, and gives the food to food banks and school lunch programs.

• Dried pulses. During lunch at The McGregor Company, one attendee brought up the fact that garbanzo beans and lentils are considered a dried bean, but dried peas are considered a vegetable crop, which has different rules and handling regulations. Perdue said he hadn’t heard about that, but would look into it. He also cautioned producers about the Food Safety and Modernization Act, saying it has lots of tentacles that could cause farmers some headaches.

• KORUS. According to Perdue, the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is signed; the administration is just waiting to announce it.

• NAFTA. Perdue told producers over lunch that the Mexican side of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations was mostly driven by the auto industry that saw jobs moving to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages. President Trump was unaware of the benefits of NAFTA to agriculture until Perdue showed him. The Canadian side of NAFTA renegotiations was driven by protectionism policies on dairy, poultry and eggs. Wheat is also affected because U.S. wheat that goes north of the border is automatically graded as feed wheat. Perdue told producers that the president is trying to level the playing field for U.S. producers.

• Ag labor. At the Washington Farm Bureau breakfast, the importance of the H-2A program was stressed. Perdue said he sees the USDA as a broker, working with the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide producers a path to employing a legal workforce. He said the president knows agriculture needs a guest worker program that works sooner rather than later.

• Columbia-Snake River System. Perdue was asked about the best way to address conflicts over the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as the region’s dependence on that water for irrigation. He encouraged producers to engage with environmentalists and tell the story of how agriculture contributes to the economic viability of the region. “You have to engage and not disparage the people who believe differently…show them what it (availability of water) means to the region and the overall economy of Washington,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Just as this issue was going to print, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $12 billion in aid would be offered to growers of certain commodities. Details are scarce, but watch our website, wawg.org, for updates.