When the Administration's budget proposal came out, everyone felt like Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had betrayed rural America with the cuts proposed, but Perdue did his best to stand up for rural America’s needs and continued to defend staple safety net programs such as the crop insurance partnership, according to comments made on the sidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum.
“It’s not appropriate for me to talk about internal discussions, but we argued about a lot of things,” Perdue said of his discussions with the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB), which had the final say on the details of the President’s budget request earlier this month.
Perdue said the final budget request – which again asked for extensive cuts to USDA’s budget and farm bill safety net – was a collaborative process between USDA and OMB. “We’re given some top-line numbers. We worked out a proposal that will fit in what OMB believes it needs from a macro perspective,” he explained.
So, what about those cuts to crop insurance that could reduce the premium assistance across the board? “We believe Congress will look at it in the same way they’ve looked at other presidents’ budgets," Perdue noted. "We do know crop insurance is a vital part of the safety net.”
Still, Perdue defended the need to make hard choices when it comes to spending. “I’m a fiscal conservative. The United States has to get its fiscal house in order. I don’t believe it’s moral to kick debt down the road. It’s up to us now – even while there are a lot of needs and a lot of challenges – to get that federal house in order. It takes some sacrifices in the short term,” he said.
Another component in the budget was the “Harvest Box” initiative, which provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants with a box of U.S.-produced food that includes shelf-ready meat and milk, similar to the Blue Apron-type services that currently deliver packages of food. The proposal has been met with some skepticism, but Perdue continued to defend the idea.
Perdue said the concept was born out of USDA’s food and nutrition group, which was challenged to bring ideas of how to do more with less, and this was an idea that could get a healthy, nutritious, stable diet to those who need it. He said the delivery box offers some solutions to those who need food but don’t have transportation options.
He said in today’s increasingly technological environment, some national grocers are already doing some of these things in terms of food delivery.
In his inaugural speech at the annual Agricultural Outlook Forum before all of the attendees, Perdue said while he traveled thousands of miles across the U.S. in his first year of office, the three issues he commonly hears pertain to regulation, trade and obtaining a reliable, legal workforce.
The topics aren’t new for the secretary -- they’ve become a staple of his “stump” speeches as he makes his way through rural America -- but it continues to display his strong commitment to many issues that resonate with members of the U.S. agriculture industry.
“Ag producers are concerned about trade -- and that’s for good reason,” Perdue said. He realizes that farmers are anxious about the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but said President Donald Trump is a shrewd, tough negotiator who wants the best for American agriculture.
Perdue compared Trump’s role in the negotiations to that of his relationship with Congress to “keep them off balance.” At the end of the day, he said he is confident that Trump will strike the best deal for agriculture.
Perdue also spoke about the labor issue and said he recognizes that the current H2-A guest worker program is “cumbersome, convoluted and doesn’t work for many producers.” He said he continues to reiterate to White House officials that the domestic workforce just doesn't want to do many of the jobs on U.S. farms.
He also noted that the immigrants who do work on farms are not the people committing crimes and are not putting a burden on the criminal or economic system domestically. “We know they’re important for agriculture and our economy. As this debate continues, I’m going to make sure agriculture is supplied,” Perdue said of the labor force.