Perdue told attendees at USDA’s Agriculture Outlook Forum Feb. 22 that after crisscrossing the country to visit 33 states since he took his job last year he has heard “consistently” from agriculture stakeholders that they have three main areas of concern: regulation, trade, and having access to a reliable, legal workforce.
Starting with regulation, Perdue praised the Trump administration for going “on the offense” to address overly burdensome regulations, and already doing “more than anyone else in reducing regulations.”
Perdue claimed that an example of an early success for the administration on this front for agriculture stakeholders was repealing the Waters of the United States rule, which clarified the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers had authority over navigable rivers and interstate waterways. When the rule took effect in August 2015, many real estate, agriculture and industrial stakeholders complained it included numerous and costly obligations on landowners.
“In addition,” he said, “for every new regulatory action we must remove two existing regulations, and that is a big challenge in some ways,” but also an opportunity to address overreaching attempts by agencies to clarify ambiguous Congressional acts.
“In the last several years, we call it the fourth estate, our agencies are creating laws themselves sometimes that I feel like are outside the intent of the original Congressional purpose,” he said. While he did not provide specific examples, this was one reason USDA recently gave for nixing tighter animal welfare standards for the organic program that were passed in the 11th hour of the Obama Administration.
Overall, Perdue said, “at USDA we are going to push for 28 deregulatory actions, which alone we believe will generate over $56 million in annualized savings.”
He also encouraged stakeholders to reach out to the agency online if they have concerns about specific regulations that they think the agency should review as part of its efforts to cut red tape.
Anxiety around trade is mounting
Agriculture producers who met Perdue on his whistle-stop tour of the US also told him they are worried about trade, and specifically about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he said.
Perdue tried to ease these concerns by telling attendees that President Trump “is a very shrewd negotiator,” as illustrated by his relationship with Congress and his efforts to keep them “off balance” so that “they don’t know what he is going to do next.”
From a negotiating standpoint, he added, President Trump “wants the best for the American people, American agriculture and American economy and I believe he will, at the end of the day, strike the best deal for the American economy and that includes agriculture.”
While he did not provide specifics on Trump’s position or how the administration might try to reshape trade agreements, he pointed to the growing global middle class as providing opportunities for improved trade.
“We know we have a growing global middle class and this is good news because the first thing a growing middle class wants is a better diet, they show that time and time again, and American producers are going to be there ready for that,” Perdue said.
For example, he sees potential to provide resources to India’s growing middle class, but he acknowledges “there are protectionist provisions there that we need to work down and demonstrate we are willing to help India feed that growing population.”
He also said he believes that as the UK separates from the European Union, “they will be looking for trade partners as well, and we are prepared to take advantage of our very longstanding relationship with the UK.”
Perdue also noted recent successes expanding exports, including beef to China, American chipping potatoes to Japan, and other opportunities with South Korea.
Overall, he said, US agriculture exports are well positioned and projected to reach $140bn in 2018, which “is almost as much as last year even with lower commodity prices.”
Untangling competing immigration priorities
Finally, Perdue said, USDA is exploring how to create an easier and more effective system to bring agriculture employees into the US from other countries.
“It is no secret, obviously, agriculture is kind of caught in the crossfire of some of the immigration debate and that is an important point. I believe there are enough people outside the US who want to come to this country on a temporary basis, not for citizenship, but who want to come to this country and work and be productive in agriculture,” he said.
He countered concerns that these are jobs that Americans could have or that temporary workers from outside the US are a tax on America’s welfare and criminal justice systems.
“Agriculture is frankly a pretty unique area of immigration. I work hard at the White House to persuade people who may not understand that about our state of the domestic workforce,” and that Americans don’t want these jobs, he said.
In addition, he said, “these are not people who are committing crimes” and they are “not the ones who are putting a burden on our federal justice system or our welfare system. They just want an economic opportunity for a good job and a life for their family, and we know they are important for agriculture and our economy.”
He assured attendees: “As this debate continues, I am going to make sure agriculture is supplied with a legal work force.”
Overall, he concluded, “I think we are moving in the right direction on [each of] those fronts.”