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Newly Minted U.S. Ag Secretary Will Directly Impact Montana

The U.S Senate Monday confirmed Sonny Perdue as secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture . USDA oversees ag and forest policies directly affecting rural states like Montana.

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Chelcie Cargill says farmers are particularly interested in expanding to new markets.

She says the Farm Bureau Federation hopes Secretary Perdue will implement programs to help them do that.

“Trade is something that’s very important to agriculture in Montana. Access to new markets and an emphasis on making decisions that protect agriculture and the livelihood of farmers and ranchers from regulatory burden is something we really hope he emphasizes.”

Cargill’s counterpart at the Great Falls-based Montana Farmers Union, Lyndsay Bruno, agrees that good trade policy is key for Montana ag. The Farmers Union opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership.

“Because we felt like it was not fair trade in terms of the currency manipulation that were uneasy about. We were the only farm organization that was against that trade policy. We’re encouraged that President Trump is looking for ways to even the playing field in terms of international trade."

Montana wheat farmers – already staring down the barrel of low wheat prices - are also rankled that Canada automatically downgrades the value of their wheat once it crosses the northern border.

“When wheat is imported into our country from Canada we pay a fair amount; we don’t downgrade it. We’re looking for a more level playing field. That’s something we’ve advocated for and something we’re hopeful the administration will stay on top of and will support”, Bruno says.

USDA oversees 29 federal agencies, including the U.S Forest Service. Its Northern Region, Region 1, manages 25-million-acres of National Forests and national grasslands in northern Idaho, Montana and North Dakota.

In 2014, Secretary Perdue wrote an article in the conservative National Review expressing skepticism that climate change is connected to extreme weather events.

The Sierra Club’s Athan Manuel says climate change presents a direct threat to the nation’s forests.

“We’re nervous that he’ll increase the cut on our federal lands and that he won’t manage our nation’s forests for climate change. The climate denial thing is a real red flag for us – and not just at USDA. This cabinet is full of people who deny climate change is real. We’re nervous about those consequences.”

Julia Altemus says that doesn't concern her as much as it does some other people. Altemus is the executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association.

“Climates change. They always do. That’s a given. They’ve changed over the course of our history and they will change again. We’ve had a very wet winter and a very wet spring. How do we incorporate sound science into active management? It will be a learning curve for (Sonny Perdue) and very key for who he puts in in key positions.”

As the always-contentious forest policy debates rage, Congress - and the Agriculture Department - are gearing up for another big policy showdown. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Chelcie Cargill says,

“We’re preparing to discuss another Farm Bill. That’s going to put the department of agriculture, once again, back in the spotlight in congress.”

The farm bill is a multi-year law that oversees an array of agricultural and food programs. Cargill says the Farm Bureau Federation will work to ensure USDA under Sonny Perdue will make sure that risk programs such as crop insurance as well as any drought or natural disaster relief programs are still a negotiated part of the deal.

Sonny Perdue replaces Tom Vilsack who led USDA under President Obama and was his longest serving Cabinet Secretary.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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