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Ag secretary discusses trade, immigration before House Ag Committee

Sonny Perdue takes questions from House Agricultural Committee members on state of rural economy.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue entertained questions from the House Agriculture Committee for nearly two hours on Tuesday morning. Themes mentioned in the hearing included issues on trade, immigration and expanding rural broadband access.

In his opening comments, House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway (R., Texas) said, “Uncertainty over the direction of trade has exacerbated the anxiety in rural America because the U.S. farmer and rancher depends so much on access to global markets to make ends meet.”

Conaway continued, “On the trade front, the ball is naturally more in the Administration’s court than it is in ours. I appreciate the Administration’s strong desire to strike better deals for the United States and to reduce, if not eliminate, our trade deficit. But, as you know, Mr. Secretary, there is also a very deep concern in the countryside that none of the gains we have made in the way of market access for farmers and ranchers should be lost in the process.”

In his opening statement, Perdue noted that news that China is looking to apply antidumping duties on U.S. sorghum imports led to sorghum prices losing $1/bu. – or 25% of the market value – on Monday following the announcement.

In his round of questioning to start off the hearing, Conaway asked what the U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning in regard to the sorghum situation. Perdue said the latest situation shows how “fragile and how sensitive commodity prices are to trade disruptions.” He added that the U.S. “can’t be responsible for China’s reaction” to efforts by the U.S. to protect other industries.

He did say he expects the sorghum situation to be “nullif(ied) over a period of time” but acknowledged that agriculture is often the “point of the spear of retaliatory measures,” just like what is playing out in the countervailing charges against sorghum.

Perdue noted that the trade environment has created a lot of anxiety for U.S. agricultural producers. He’s hopeful that North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations can wrap up with an improved, modernized NAFTA that is better for American producers. “Our farmers need certainty. They, like any business, deal in certainty.”

He said he is more hopeful now than he had been previously that NAFTA negotiations will conclude successfully before the end of the year. With Mexico holding its presidential elections this summer, he added, “If we get Mexican politics out of the way, I think we’ll have a deal before the end of the year.”

Perdue also expressed optimism over President Donald Trump’s recent statements about potential interest in rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Immigration

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) has introduced a bill to replace the current H2-A program for agricultural workers with one that is administered by USDA instead of the U.S. Department of Labor and also takes into consideration certain needs for a year-round agricultural workforce rather than the current seasonal workforce approach.

Goodlatte asked Perdue his views on the current status of the agricultural workforce.

Perdue said a permanent legal workforce is one of the top three most critical issues facing American agriculture. He views Goodlatte’s bill favorably and said he hopes the agriculture industry’s needs can find their way into any immigration debate and resolution packages being considered, potentially even as part of the government spending packages.

Perdue also noted that USDA is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as it has ramped up raids on farms. “The criminals they’re looking for are not on our farms,” he said. “It’s a challenge, obviously, as agents show up and affects everyone in the community.” Perdue noted that many workers have been on these farms for years, and some hold top management positions.

Rural broadband

Several committee members asked for insight into how USDA has worked with other departments to enhance the deployment of rural broadband service. Perdue said it's one of the most “transformative” things that could be done in this century.

Perdue said USDA is “working feverishly" with the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Commerce and state and local partners to develop a nationwide strategy for deployment of more rural broadband.

He said Trump’s announcement Monday to appoint Kenneth Johnson as the USDA Rural Utility Service administrator also offers greater focus on increasing broadband access for rural communities.

Johnson serves as general manager/chief executive officer of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and is president of Co-Mo Connect in Tipton, Mo. Co-Mo was the first to deploy a fiber-to-the-home network for all of its members without federal or state funding, providing gigabit internet, video and voice services to nearly 16,000 subscribers.

“Ken’s experience with rural utilities, including real success in expanding access to high-speed internet, will serve us well as we strive to increase prosperity across rural America,” Perdue said in a statement following the announcement.

View the archived webcast of the hearing here.

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