Ag Today May 26, 2017

Ag leaders have high hopes for new USDA structure

Published on 05/25/2017 – 2:01 pm

Written by David Castellon

A reorganization within the U. S. Department of Agriculture by the new secretary could benefit California’s ag industry on immigration and trade, said the president of California Fresh Fruit Association.

“I think those have real potential,” George Radanovich said of Secretary Sonny Perdue’s recent announcement that he has created two new undersecretary positions, one to promote the sales of U.S. agricultural goods in foreign markets and the other to focus on domestic agricultural issues.”

“Perdue has said he wants to be the chief advocate of ag products around the world, so we applaud that,” said Radanovich, a former 16-year representative for Congressional District 19 whose Fresno-based trade group represents fruit growers.

In particular, he said, he hopes that the new undersecretary — who hasn’t been appointed yet — will be able to “influence the administration on behalf of American agriculture on trade negotiations” as the Trump Administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade agreement.

In particular, the association wants the new undersecretary to push for no new tariffs being imposed on U.S. agricultural exports, Radanovich said.

“It is good to see an agency of the United States government is going to focus efforts in that area,” added Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute of California, a trade group representing dairy processors.

California is the top dairy-producing state in the U.S., and generates a third of all U.S. dairy exports.

Creating an undersecretary position focusing on foreign trade of American agricultural good seems to be an acknowledgement by the Trump administration of the importance of ag trade, despite the administration opting to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan, Chile Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as putting the U.S. on shaky ground for trade with Mexico,” Kaldor said.

“In an administration that has upended trade negotiations in just a few months in office, it’s interesting we have an [undersecretary] to focus on trade,” she said. “I find it a potentially great opportunity and puzzling at the same time.”

“The National Corn Growers Association has long advocated for a dedicated position at USDA focused on increasing U.S. agricultural exports, and we pushed for this provision in the 2014 Farm Bill. We are pleased to see that post finally become a reality,” the organization stated in a press release.

“Secretary Perdue’s announcement signals to farm country that the Trump Administration is listening to America’s farmers and ranchers.”

The creation of the two undersecretary positions is part of a reorganization of the USDA, Perdue announced.

“Food is a noble thing to trade. This nation has a great story to tell, and we’ve got producers here that produce more than we can consume,” he said in a press release.
“And that’s good, because I’m a grow-it-and-sell-it kind of guy. Our people in American agriculture have shown they can grow it, and we’re here to sell it in markets all around the world.”

USDA officials noted that about 20 percent of U.S. farm goods are exported — based on production values — and, on average, every dollar of those goods sold results in $1.27 worth of business activity in this country.

In addition, every $1 billion in agricultural export sales supports about 8,000 American jobs.

“Our plan to establish an undersecretary for trade fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world,” Perdue’s press release continues.

“By working side by side with our U.S. trade representative and secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, the USDA undersecretary for trade will ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world.”

For her part, Kaldor said, whoever is appointed as trade undersecretary should know the ag industry well, have great sensitivity to foreign markets and be willing to research those markets, as well as being committed to work with groups already promoting American foreign trade, including the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Perdue’s press release goes on to say that USDA’s reorganization seeks to place its divisions into more “logical order,” noting that under the current structure, the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), which deals with overseas markets, and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which handles domestic issues, were housed under one mission area, along with the Risk Management Agency (RMA).

“It makes much more sense to situate FAS under the new undersecretary for trade, where staff can sharpen their focus on foreign markets,” the press release states.

The reorganization will create another new undersecretary position, this one focusing on domestic agricultural issues and overseeing FSA, RMA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which includes the U.S. Forest Service.

Perdue said that person “will provide a simplified, one-stop shop for USDA’s primary customers, the men and women farming, ranching and foresting across America.

“There are many constraints on agriculture today that need to be acknowledged” and addressed by this other undersecretary, including issues of land availability and urban sprawl, water, air quality and “burdensome” environmental regulations, Kaldor said.

And while California may be seen as the focal point of over regulation, the new undersecretary shouldn’t think of this as a California-only problem, because after regulations take hold here, they’ll spread to other states and “over time, the rest of nation will look like what California’s doing now,” she added.

Radanovich said he hopes whomever Perdue appoints as the undersecretary over domestic ag issues will pay attention to agricultural labor issues and advocate for the sorts of immigration reforms that farmers and ranchers generally want, including the development of a guest worker program that gives foreign nationals the opportunity to work here legally and return to their home countries.

“Our biggest fear is that Congress will adopt an enforcement measure like E-verify and a guest worker program” without also developing some sort of interim program to allow undocumented workers already working on U.S. farms and ranches to continue doing so over the three years or so it would take to iron out a guest worker program, he explained.

“And if that is not included, we are without a labor force for three years.”

“Just as importantly, the USDA reorganization will elevate the rural development agencies to report directly to the secretary of agriculture to ensure that rural America always has a seat at the table,” the USDA release states.

“Fighting poverty wherever it exists is a challenge facing the U.S., and the reality is that nearly 85 percent of America’s persistently impoverished counties are in rural areas,” it continues.

The statement notes that rural childhood poverty rates are at their highest point since 1986, affecting one in four rural children in the U.S., with deep poverty among children being most prevalent in rural areas — 12.2 percent — than in urban areas.

“No doubt, the opportunity we have here at the USDA in rural development is unmatched,” Perdue said.