When the newly minted Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue traveled to Anaheim, Calif., in 2018, to speak to farmers at Commodity Classic he was met with confusion over his perspective on E15 – a hot topic for the group. During that session he cleared that confusion and in the past year has been integrally involved in a number of trade and policy issues in the Trump White House.
This year, in Orlando for Commodity Classic, Perdue acknowledged the consternation he was met with last year. “Last year you hadn’t figured out whether you liked me or not,” he quipped. “It’s all good. And good to be with you.”
During his talk, Perdue took on some of the hot issues and accomplishments for what he named a roller coaster ride of 2018. For example, the confusion over the E15 policy last year has been cleared up with a strong effort to get the higher-ethanol fuel sold year-round with no summer restrictions. “I told you at that time that President Trump affirmed to me he had your back and has pushed for E15 to go year round. Guess what? It has gone year-round,” he said, as the crown applauded.
The rules for year-round E15 are still in the works, but Perdue had news there too noting that the newly confirmed head of EPA, Andrew Wheeler, “has figured it out and we’ll have the rule by June 1,” Perdue said.
In looking at the past year, Perdue shared some accomplishments. Passage of the 2018 Farm Bill is a key achievement, which he noted was signed on Dec. 20 – his birthday. “It was a great present to have it signed,” he said.
He added that during the farm bill writing process USDA staffers stepped up providing more than 2000 incidents of technical assistants to all parts of the process and both parties. “They worked hard on your behalf to let Congress know what would happen [for specific provisions],” he noted. “We wanted to avoid unintended consequences.”
Trade is top of mind at Commodity Classic and Perdue plunged in on the topic noting its importance around the country. Earlier in the Commodity Classic general session the heads of the corn, soybean, sorghum and wheat commodity groups had affirmed support for the United States Mexico Canada Agreement. Now the work begins.
“It’s never over until its over and Congress ratifies it, and Mexico and Canada approve it,” Perdue said. He added that the key is keeping momentum up to help Congress understand how important USMCA is for the American economy, not just the ag economy.
Perdue spoke highly of the work by Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, who heads up trade negotiations. “I did not get a feel if he liked us farmers a lot,” Perdue said. “We continued to work with him and on him to help him understand the importance of agriculture.”
He noted that Lighthizer became a strong supporter of agriculture in USMCA talks and continues to be with China trade conversations. “He doesn’t get many thank you’s,” Perdue told the crowd. “Write the Ambassador a note, he would appreciate that.”
Perdue’s folksy tone belies his determination to keep farmers in the conversation on trade, labor and other issues in the Trump Administration. During his talk there were vignettes of his work with officials in other departments and his efforts to keep farmers in the forefront. Perdue also got support from the Office of Management and Budget to open offices during the government shutdown to keep USDA paperwork moving ahead of the 2019 planting season.
He was also instrumental in push for market support in the face of trade tariffs that crimped sales of soybeans to China. He lightly touched on the Market Facilitation Payments made to farmers, explaining that the 1-cent for corn was in recognition that in that period China had imported little corn. It has been a sore spot for corn growers.
As for China, Perdue noted that farmers understand the issue in the long term, noting how trade commitments by China as part of the World Trade Organization have not been enforced as in the past. “They built their economy on unfair trade practices,” he said.
Noting that U.S. farmers and industry can “out produce” anybody, the key is to “rebalance this relationship.” Adding that China needs “your stuff” and that the country has a desire for a deal. That demonstrated with a 5 million metric ton soybean purchase in December.
During a recent meeting with the Chinese Vice Premier, the country committed to buy another 10 million metric tons. “President Trump said that’s great, Sonny go tell your farmers about the 10 million metric tons,” Perdue recalled. “I didn’t leave right away, and he looked at me and wondered why I didn’t leave. I wanted to stay because I hoped there would be more.”
Perdue assured the crowd that the Trump Administration keeps ag trade high on the priority list. “I don’t know how a guy that grew up in New York City can have a natural affection and affinity for people of the land,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because you’re builders like he is. You take different things – land, soil, nutrients, seed – and make something that’s not there. I’ve heard it over and over again, Sonny you take care of your farmers.”
That also includes working with Japan next – after USMCA and China – to create an agreement since the U.S. is out of the Asia Trans-Pacific Partnership. The move toward a bilateral approach to trade continues.
As he wrapped up his talk, Perdue noted that farmers have to work to tell the story of agriculture. And while that’s becoming almost an old saw for many, he pointed to the many negative voices against food in the social media space. “They’re creating a fear of our food, and that’s a dangerous thing,” he said. “You have to get outside the farm gate now and tell people what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You have nothing to be ashamed about.”
And though it was a bit of pandering to the crowd, Perdue shared that a Super Bowl commercial had talked about a product that corn growers may have produced that this company didn’t use anymore (he wasn’t naming names); “I’m not using their product anymore either,” he concluded, to applause.