From left, US Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue and California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson hold a World Ag Expo town hall. Image via Tulare County Farm Bureau Facebook page/ tulcofb.com.
Written by David Castellon
TULARE — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue discussed topics ranging from milk pricing to foreign trade to whether the president understands the need for foreign workers in agriculture during his first official visit to Tulare County.
He made the comments during a town hall meeting at the International Agri Center shortly after the gates opened Tuesday morning for the opening day of the World Ag Expo.
The three-day event is the largest agricultural trade show in the world that drew more than 105,700 visitors last year.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store; I love ag shows,” the secretary said before explaining to a crowd of nearly 200, “I’m here in California trying to learn about the diversity — the vast expanse of California agriculture — because it is a huge part of U.S. agriculture.”
Perdue described the event as a “listening session,” one of several he has conducted in 33 states over the past nine months to hear how his and other federal agencies are doing and what changes people might suggest.
“It’s critical for us to balance the needs of a growing consumer demand here with the productivity things you know how to do best, and we’re trying to look at every regulation that may impede your productivity. And that’s what I want to her from you today. I want to hear from you very candidly what’s working, what’s not working.”
Right off the bat, Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation who served as moderator, praised the president’s goal of cutting regulations, promising to get rid of two for every one imposed.
“I want to tell this crowd, Jamie, we’re serious about it,” said Perdue, who urged the audience to go online to USDA.gov to suggest bad or unneeded regulations.
He added that a lot of the issues he hears from farmers and others in the food industries aren’t issues the U.S. Department of Agriculture can address, but he is working to develop better communication with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies to get the right people to address those issues.
“One of the main things we need as farmers is to have roads like Highway 99 become a six-lane highway. To do that, we need federal funding to help us so that the farmers can get their goods to market,” said a woman in the audience who didn’t identify herself.
Perdue responded by saying that on Monday President Donald Trump announced he’s requesting $200 billion in his budget proposal for infrastructure repairs and improvements, along with a plan to incentivize states, local governments and the private sector to put as much as $1.5 trillion more to pay for these projects.
“Interestingly enough, he graciously committed 25 percent of that $200 billion to agricultural and rural America to help us over the highways, the marketways, the roadways, the waterways, the ports and the great logistics systems we depend on in agriculture” Perdue said of his boss.
He said the president also wants to streamline the permitting processes for these infrastructure projects, which could involve having a lead agency reach out to other agencies, so permitting the Highway 99 expansion might take a couple of years rather than seven to 10.
Another woman asked if California being a sanctuary state might result in some of that infrastructure money not coming here.
Perdue told the audience, “While we disagree on the sanctuary policies … there has been no discrimination that I’ve seen regarding the White House’s intention on how the money would be spent, based on that issue.
“I don’t think the sanctuary matter will be a factor at all.”
After a dairy farmer asked Perdue if he could do something in Washington to speed up the process of getting California off the state-run milk pricing system and onto the federal system — which generally has better pricing for dairies — the secretary replied “I hear you loud and clear.”
On the matter of immigration, Ken Malban, vice president of industry affairs for the California Avocado Commission, told the secretary, “I think you should know we’re not opposed to border security, but we do have to acknowledge we do need a workable ag guest worker program, and H-2A is not it. It’s just not flexible enough. The costs are so prohibitive for housing, especially [for] the farmers I represent.”
U.S residents don’t want to do many of these very hard ag jobs, he added.
Perdue, a former Georgia governor, agreed, telling the audience the story of another governor in his state who tried to address a farm labor crisis by compelling people on probation to be on farm work crews.
By the second day, many were asking, “Can we just go back to jail?
“I’m really hopeful an agricultural, legal workforce can be part of a comprehensive immigration proposal coming up,” Perdue said. “The president himself understands that. He understands what foreign-born workers have contributed to agriculture.”
On the subject of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump vilified while campaigning as being a bad deal for the U.S., Perdue said, “The good news is, I believe the president is understanding more the benefit of foreign trade, more so than he may have coming off the campaign … and its impact on jobs in the manufacturing sector and the growing trade deficit there.”
He didn’t say whether Trump has softened his attitude about NAFTA, though. Still, Johansson said it’s encouraging the president didn’t pull out of the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico outright and currently is renegotiating it.
He said NAFTA is important to the ag industry, and losing the agreement would hit the industry hardest.