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New U.S. Ag Secretary Lays Out Challenges, Opportunities For Farmers

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Congress this week that American farmers are facing plenty of challenges and deep uncertainty.

“Our farm economy is down by about a 50-percent drop in net income from where it was in 2013 as you all were contemplating the ’14 Farm Bill" Perdue says. "We’ve got several members who – particularly younger farmers – have levered up in this situation where their revenue is not supporting their debt structure and they’re in some dire straits.” 

Perdue spent over two hours with the House Agriculture Committee yesterday. It was his first appearance in Congress since being confirmed late last month.

He says agriculture’s challenges are based on weaker-than-anticipated commodity prices combined with uncertainty over the future of American trade deals. Several lawmakers seemed particularly interested in Perdue’s  take on trade. Within days of taking office Perdue’s boss, President Donald Trump, scuttled America’s participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Perdue yesterday deviated slightly from that course, suggesting – without offering specifics – that elements of TPP could possibly be used to help renegotiate NAFTA.

“Absolutely. Many of the principles you all had in that negotiation I think are still viable," says Perdue. "It’s just a matter of fine-tuning those in a way that makes sense. This administration is not against free trade at all. It’s really more concerned with fair trade.”

Perdue says he’s is optimistic about opening new and lucrative markets for American cattle producers.

“I think the two great wins in that area is American beef back into Brazil already," Perdue says. "I hope we’ll be able to announce very soon and show you a picture of U.S beef going into China which is a huge market. There are technical issues to continue to resolve. When dealing with some of the international buyers, it’s the Yogi Berra philosophy, ‘It aint over till it’s over’.”

USDA also  has oversight of the U.S. Forest Service, which is now spending over half its total budget fighting wildfires. That forces USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that could reduce the risk of future fires.

Ag Secretary Perdue say he hopes to “get that corrected” with the help of Congress.

“And reestablish what I believe is a mission area that’s focused directly on utilizing the renewable aspect on whether it’s deadfall going into biomass, or recovering these trees that might be down," says Perdue. "They’ve got a certain period of time that you can harvest them and they’d be good lumber. (We must) get ahead of that curve.”

President Donald Trump’s budget calls for a  21-percent budget cut to USDA. Perdue told the House Ag Committee that in spite of that, he anticipates no changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, which offers nutrition assistance to millions of low income Americans.

USDA oversees 29 federal agencies

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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