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Sonny Perdue says he's telling Trump about ag producer trade worries

Senator John Hoeven (left) and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talked with the Forum Editorial Board and Agweek representatives on March 9, 2018. (Dave Samson/Forum News Service)

FARGO, N.D. — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he talked to President Donald Trump on March 8 about the importance of trade to rural America.

Perdue on March 9 told the Forum Editorial Board he was talking to the president about the loss of income over the past four years in agriculture, and turned it into an opportunity to point out the same part of the country that voted for the president in large numbers and has seen their income drop have anxieties over the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade considerations.

Perdue on Friday morning visited with the Board with Sen. John Hoeven during a trip to North Dakota. Other stops on Perdue’s schedule included a tour of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Red River Valley Agriculture Research Center, a roundtable discussion with leaders in the state’s agricultural community, a luncheon with members of the North Dakota Collegiate Farm Bureau and a tour of American Crystal Sugar’s sugar beet processing facility in Moorhead, Minn.

Also scheduled to join him at stops on his tour were Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Perdue was candid about the struggles in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 45-minute talk at the Forum. He 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.”

Perdue also was open about the “anxiety” over trade, including Trump’s announcement of aluminum and steel tariffs earlier this week, continued negotiations over NAFTA and negotiations with other countries. But 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” over all and said the way Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic advisor, announced his resignation over the president’s announcement of tariffs earlier this week, was commendable.

“I think Gary Cohn did it in a fairly honorable way,” he said.

Hoeven joined Perdue is discussing what might happen with the upcoming farm bill. The 2014 Farm Bill expires in September. Hoeven said the U.S. House should unveil their bill this month, and the Senate will follow in April. The budget bill passed in February laid groundwork for some changes, including important changes for the dairy and cotton sectors and expansion of disaster programs, they said. They also expect changes to conservation programs within the farm bill, including a possible expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program and more funding for things like shelterbelts and other programs.

Hoeven said the House is looking at an expansion of CRP from 24 million acres to 30 million, though he doesn’t know if that will be the final number.

Perdue said the 2014 bill made important changes to the safety net for farmers but that more changes will be necessary to make programs work for farmers, including work on reference prices and specialty crop protections.

The Section 199A tax provision included in the tax bill also should be dealt with soon, Hoeven said. He said all interested parties have been involved in finding a solution to the unintended consequences of the provision, which gave cooperatives a tax advantage over corporations. Perdue said Hoeven and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have been instrumental in getting the problem resolved, with their staffs putting in “hundreds of hours” to make it right. The change will be retroactive, Hoeven said.

“This is to make sure tax relief works well for farmers — all farmers,” Hoeven said.

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.

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