New U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue spoke in Great Falls Thursday. Perdue suggested reforms for a couple of big safety net programs important to farmers.
Perdue has only been on the job as ag secretary since the end of April, and part of his job is to help President Trump push forward a budget that calls for big cuts in the Department of Agriculture.
Speaking to an audience of more than 700 mostly farmers and ranchers at an “agriculture summit” convened by Senator Steve Daines, Secretary Perdue said the cuts include trimming SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps.
"It's not in the heart of America to want to see anyone go hungry. And we don't want that happen," Perdue said. "Americans are compassionate and USDA will be compassionate as we administer that program. On the other hand, I don't think it ought to be a permanent lifestyle, either. It ought to be a hand up and help out to do that."
Perdue didn't get applause when he talked about cuts to another safety net program — federally-subsidized crop insurance for farmers.
"Now, I just want to say something in a kind of tough love kind of way."
Many lenders in farm country require crop insurance before they'll make an ag loan, so it's crucial to a lot of farmers.
"But just let's face it, you don't buy insurance on your house hoping it'll burn down, do you? We don't want to do that. And neither do we want to buy crop insurance hoping our crop fails so we can file," Perdue said. "So, we’ve got to get out of the mindset that, if I invest a dollar in crop insurance, I want to make sure I get a dollar-ten or plus out of that."
Perdue is reorganizing the Department of Agriculture, he says, to make it more customer friendly to farmers, and to help them sell and get good prices for their crops and livestock both in the U.S. and overseas.
He said he's encouraged by President Trump's plans for U.S. agriculture, too.
"The President has signed an executive order talking about rural prosperity, and he called it an inter-agency task force. Because you folks know better than anybody, when one agency in government pushes forward, we get pushed off the boat, and that happens. We’ve seen that in EPA, we’ve seen that in the [Army] Corps of Engineers. We've seen it in many other areas," says Perdue.
Perdue said the executive order directs him to work closely with the Secretaries of Trade, Interior, EPA and Energy to build rural economies.
On Friday, Perdue will be in Boise to visit the Interagency Fire Center and meet with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.