Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has spent the better part of his first few months in office canvassing rural America to listen to the challenges farmers and rural constituents are facing. “People are hungry for people in this town (Washington, D.C.) to listen,” Perdue says. “Our goal is that within USDA they have found an honest listener and broker, to listen to problems and hopefully solve some of them.” In a press briefing recently held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Secretary Perdue outlined some of the issues he’s been asked about while on the road.
First and foremost are trade issues, namely what will be the fallout of NAFTA and the status of American agricultural exports. Perdue noted that even in the midst of low commodity prices, exports continue to grow and are projected to top $140 billion in 2018, making it one of the top four years for export sales and an anomaly compared to other trade markets.
“The President is concerned in general about trade deficits,” Perdue says. “I remind him that agriculture has a significant trade surplus”, which is expected to be around $23 billion in 2018. A key part of U.S. exports is trade with our closest partners, Mexico and Canada. The status of negotiations around the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is another topic that gets brought up during Perdue’s travels. He’s hoping for a speedy resolution.
“I’ve asked Santa for a trade deal,” Perdue jokes. “Then I realized that the North Pole is too close to Canada so that probably won’t happen.”
Perdue is confident that a NAFTA proposal will get done eventually. “We need a fair, functioning NAFTA,” he says. “President Trump is tough on negotiations and always focused on putting America first. We all want a renewed NAFTA that’s better for America and American producers. With modernizing and tweaking, it can carry on.”
Another hot topic of discussion is the pending farm bill. Perdue doesn’t see radical departures and changes from the existing bill passed in 2014. “This farm bill will be evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he says. Adjustments to programs that didn’t get much support in the 2014 bill, including programs for cotton growers and dairy producers, could be the most significant changes found in the new bill.
Perdue admitted that in his travels throughout rural America he’s concerned with the general state of the rural economy. “We’ve seen a recovery in the general economy from the Great Recession,” Perdue says. “But not so in rural America. Population is stagnant or diminishing. It’s the responsibility of USDA to provide economic opportunities for people living in rural communities.” He noted that a report will be released soon from USDA with special recommendations on how to help rural America succeed and thrive.
With regard to taxes, another topic of discussion, Perdue says he hopes the American people will get a nice Christmas present of tax reform this Holiday season.