Agriculture is going through a lot of changes, and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue shared with the Commodity Classic crowd that the current administration supports the industry. Key evidence of that support was two rounds of Market Facilitation Program payments. Perdue also said the administration is making headway on trade, sharing that farmers would rather earn a leaving than get support — a sentiment that drew applause from the San Antonio crowd.
In the trade discussion, he shared that trade agreements are going into effect that will make a difference, though that may be slowed by the coronavirus outbreak. "For that Phase 1 deal, we have some hard-line numbers," he said. "There was some concern that we did not allocate the trade sector by sector, or crop by crop. USDA is building a matrix of verification to track these sales."
Perdue said the Chinese are working on the technical side of the agreement, and noted that the agreement calls on China to double imports in two years. "That's more than ever before," he said.
Many note the trade war as a recent event, but Perdue observed that the trade war has been going on for many years and the focus of current trade negotiations is to get wins for the U.S.
As for those MFP payments and trade aid, he shared any future aid should be viewed as support from injury due to trade challenges, and not be seen as aid. "[The Market Facilitation Payment program] was never designed as a price support program," he said.
Eye on Europe
Perdue observed that the attitude toward modern agriculture technology in Europe is going to become a problem. With Brexit, Perdue does see an opportunity for trade with Great Britain separate from the EU. "We're not letting any grass grow under our feet," he said. "I'll be going to the U.K. next month to visit with them."
He said he's already been talking with officials in Britain, noting that the region was one of "our former great trading partners … and they've got potential for using a lot of ag imports."
As for the greater European Union, Perdue said that on his recent trip to the EU, he found farmers he visited with were frustrated. "Their politicians are handcuffing them and not letting them use modern techniques," he said.
He noted that those farmers see the tools U.S. farmers are using and the technology available. "They need to be advocating their politicians to use sound science-based tools in modern technology, or else the European Union will become a museum of agriculture not of production," Perdue said.
Perdue took on the topic of sustainability, noting that U.S. farmers are leading the way. "My message to the Europeans, if you look at the productivity of American agriculture with tripling and quadrupling productivity over the last 70 to 90 years, using 10% less arable acres, that's real sustainability."
But he went further, noting there are three pillars of sustainability from his perspective. First there's environmental sustainability. "There's not a farmer today that wants to poison land so future progeny can't farm," he observed, and earned a round of applause.
Noting that farmers have been accused off harming the land and environment, he said there's a greater need to be transparent about what's going on for the farm, and that there's environmental sustainability at work.
The second pillar is social sustainability, the need to do right and feed everyone.
And the final pillar is economic sustainability. The farm has to pay farmers a living so they can raise their families. "You need money you can live on, to put your kids through school, give them a college education and feed them they way everyone else is. That's what we're talking about is having an understanding of balance — doing right through the environment, feeding everyone, but also doing it while making a living doing what you do."
He spoke about continued support for broadband in the country, noting that Congress has allocated $1.1 billion over two years to support the ReConnect program that aims to fund projects across the country. It's an issue he continues to promote, knowing that with rising tech on the farm, producers need that kind of support.
Another key topic is the Renewable Fuel Standard, which he admits three years ago he got some challenges from groups at Commodity Classic. "You know that President Trump has authorized year-round E15, and he's serious about that, and he also got the EPA to do declare in their rule coming out that this year 15 billion gallons means 15 billion gallons," he said to more applause.
There was a recent decision by the 10th Circuit Court regarding small-refinery waivers. "I think you'll see those waivers significantly reduced this year, which will also help," he added. "But in D.C., it's never over until it's over, so you can't relax. You've got to make sure your voices are heard on this issue going forward. I can advocate for you in the Oval Office, and at all the policy meetings. But nothing beats your advocacy."