At the end of his first full week in office, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Iowa. Calling himself the unapologetic chief salesman for U.S. agriculture, Perdue met with Iowa lawmakers, business leaders and farmers May 5 at a central Iowa farm.
Bill Couser, a cattle feeder, along with wife Nancy and son Tim, hosted the event. The Cousers took Perdue on a walking tour of their feedlot facilities.
“It’s great to be here, knowing all that Iowa contributes to American agriculture,” said Perdue, a veterinarian and former Georgia governor. Perdue addressed a town hall meeting of 200 people outdoors, his first major farm policy speech as U.S. ag chief. He talked about the importance of trade, renewable fuels, government regulations, immigration policy and the need for soil conservation.
Perdue said the Trump administration will fight to eliminate unfair trade barriers and open new markets for U.S. ag products. They hope to renegotiate a new NAFTA agreement soon. He said the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico has been good for farmers but it hasn’t been good for all U.S. industries, such as manufacturing. Perdue noted “President Trump has said we’ll give these countries a little more time to renegotiate NAFTA in a way that’s more fair and balanced. We will also reassess trade issues with other countries such as looking at ways to get beef into China. My chief job is selling ag products across the world, and President Trump has my support.”
Perdue’s message on trade issues was applauded by farmers attending. Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill expects Perdue will look at ways to “modernize and improve” NAFTA. “Secretary Perdue talked about producing and selling crops, livestock and farm products,” said Hill. “Everything we produce in Iowa needs to find a market, and much of the market is outside our borders.”
Promises to support a strong RFS
Perdue said he supports the Renewable Fuel Standard, which calls for blending a certain amount of ethanol and biodiesel into the nation’s fuel supply each year. He reminded the crowd that President Donald Trump has stated support for ethanol and biodiesel. Perdue said he has assurances from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that they support renewable fuels.
When Couser introduced Perdue, he noted off in the distance across the fields you can see a corn ethanol plant, a cellulosic ethanol plant, and wind turbines generating electricity. A local co-op elevator is nearby. Couser said, “Iowa farmers and rural investors built renewable fuel producing facilities to help reduce our nation’s reliance on foreign oil and create domestic demand for corn and soybeans. All this corn would be leaving the state for processing elsewhere if our rural communities hadn’t invested in renewable fuel production.”
On the issue of trade and beef exports, Perdue said he will team up with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad — Trump’s nominee for ambassador to China. “We will go to China and sell all the Iowa beef we can,” said Perdue, drawing the crowd’s applause. “The Chinese will tell you they want American beef, and we will figure out a way to get it to them. There are technical discussions, difficult to reach agreement on, but we’re going to stay at it. People do business with people, and we want our foreign customers to trust us that we are bringing them a healthy, wholesome product.”
Outreach to farmers is applauded
Perdue fielded questions. Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, reminded Perdue that for many years USDA has been a leader in the effort to expand consumer access to higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel. “It’s important to understand the need for continued growth in the availability and use of higher blends; it is critical for the ag economy,” said Shaw.
Shaw added, “It’s encouraging to see in only your second week on the job, you are pursuing input from farmers, renewable fuel producers, and other stakeholders directly impacted by the decisions USDA will make. We especially appreciate your reiteration of support for the Renewable Fuel Standard.” Shaw presented Perdue a “Don’t Mess with the RFS” button, which Perdue pinned on his shirt. “We’re not going to mess with the RFS,” he said. “Ethanol is here to stay. In fact, we’re going to look at more new technologies to make ethanol even more efficient.”
Couser, who feeds distillers grains from the nearby ethanol plant to his cattle, again emphasized the importance of renewable energy to Iowa’s economy. “This community has stepped up to the plate, supporting biofuels,” he said. “It’s so important to keep the RFS. Today, as a farmer, the RFS is my safety net. It’s our support program that our community has helped build.”
On the feedlot tour, Couser explained how he uses the latest technologies to be even more efficient as a farmer and cattle feeder, to ensure animal health and protect the environment. Later in the day, Perdue went to Ames and toured USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories.
Focus on regulations, farm labor issues
In addition to trade and biofuels, Perdue said he will focus on examining and rolling back onerous regulations and improving USDA’s working relationship with farmers. “We want to let farmers farm. We’re going to make sound science, data-based decisions. We want to do it right, honestly and ethically, and we want to feed everyone.”
The administration will also consider farm labor needs as it moves to reform immigration policies, said Perdue. “The president understands the importance of farm labor. We have to be very careful we don’t disrupt the farm labor supply.” He added, “I’ll be happy to be an adopted Iowa son as secretary of agriculture. President Trump understands American agriculture is vital to the economy, and he understands Iowa is vital to American agriculture.”
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, at the end of Perdue’s speech, admitted he shouldn’t have worried earlier about not having a Midwest person leading USDA. Noting that Perdue has an extensive background in agriculture as a veterinarian and in agribusiness before being elected governor of Georgia, Grassley said. “He’s the perfect person to be secretary of agriculture.”