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U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky
TRADE OPTIMISM: Despite current market concerns, Steve Censky, U.S. deputy secretary of ag, believes trade negotiations will bring a better future for agriculture.

USDA moving on transformative fronts

China and rural broadband are high priorities, according to the USDA deputy ag secretary.

Thanks to funding via the recent omnibus spending bill, USDA is moving ahead with “transformative” programs to benefit the rural infrastructure and broadband. That was the word on Monday from Steve Censky, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture.

The omnibus bill provided $13.5 billion for 2018 work on the ag economy, infrastructure and broadband. Some $60 billion is targeted to these priorities, what Censky labeled as unprecedented. While he didn’t detail all aspects of how the money would be used, he spoke at length about bringing broadband to rural America via grants and investment partnerships with private companies.

Some 80% of rural America has no broadband service. It can, he contended, “be as transformative as the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and the Federal Highway Act of 1956 were.”

Later in the day, Steven Berry, CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, pointed out the past federal efforts to expand rural broadband fizzled for numerous reasons, including complex permitting rules and the cost of installing systems in low-user density areas. He indicated innovative approaches would be necessary for broadband advancement with wireless or fiber optic systems.

‘Hot’ foreign trade issues
Censky noted the importance of foreign trade to agriculture, and that 20% of all jobs are derived from agriculture. “With the North American Free Trade Agreement, we want to do no harm in negotiation. We’re optimistic we can make changes. But we need market access to Canada,” he stressed.

President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of tariffs on China are causing anxiety in U.S. agriculture, he conceded, then added: “We’re trying to bring them to the negotiating table. China doesn’t play by the rules. Despite the uncertainty roiling the markets, we’re optimistic for negotiations.” Reason: “China is reliant on imports.”

Censky noted that Trump’s focus has been more on manufacturing than agriculture. That sector has been overlooked, he added, and needs to be rebalanced to help the U.S. economy.

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