Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey spent a day in Washington, D.C., April 25, meeting with President Donald Trump and Sonny Perdue, the new U.S. secretary of agriculture. Upon returning to Iowa, Northey talked with reporters on a conference call.
The Iowa ag secretary was one of 14 farm representatives invited to the White House to participate in a roundtable discussion on agricultural issues. They talked about trade, immigration, infrastructure, regulations, renewable fuels and more. Northey said Trump clearly respects Perdue and wants to be involved in important ag issues. The president “wants the rest of the federal government to work for ag producers.”
Northey is unsure how that will play out. For example, he said, “I’m not sure what the administration will push for in the next farm bill, which Congress is already starting to hold hearings on to gather information. But the president made it clear to us he wants to open more markets for U.S. farm products.”
Northey said Trump talked about “the need to be firm in the way we deal with our world trade partners. He talked about the importance of having good trade with Canada and Mexico” and that “foreign trade is critical to U.S. farmers. Overall, Canada, Mexico and China are our nation’s largest trade partners.
“My takeaway,” Northey added, “is the president understands how important exports are to American agriculture and will not risk undermining the advancements we’ve made in ag trade, as the administration works with our trading partners to address other concerns.”
Northey said, “In my comments during the meeting, I highlighted the importance of the ethanol industry, especially to Iowa, and the importance of maintaining a strong Renewable Fuel Standard. The president again shared his support for the ethanol industry. I look forward to continuing to work with the administration to support the renewable fuels industry.”
Northey said that Trump told him, “You know I’m a big supporter of ethanol, and I’m a fan of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. I’m looking forward to him going to China and serving as U.S. ambassador there. He will do well for us, with his long-term relationship he has with China and his longtime personal friendship with the president of China.”
Wants less government regulation
Regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection agency rules and other regulations that affect farmers, Northey said the Trump administration will look for “well-intended” but burdensome regulations that fail to provide added protections for consumers. “He pointed out that we need to constantly look at ways to improve food safety,” Northey added. “But we need to look at getting the same things done, with less expense.”
The president was “very engaged,” said Northey. “He asked a lot of questions of us at the table as we brought up issues about farming and agriculture.”
Northey said Trump “reinforced” his support for Sonny Perdue as ag secretary several times in the roundtable meeting. “As an issue would come up, the president would turn to Secretary Perdue and say, ‘OK, that’s something else you need to work on. Get me some information and a memo on that.’”
Immigration and farm labor issues
The group also discussed access to farm labor, as Trump is concerned about immigrants coming over the border illegally to work in the U.S., including in ag-related jobs. Packing plants, livestock and poultry farms, as well as fruit and vegetable farms, now rely heavily on immigrant labor. “He [Trump] is very interested in these folks’ concerns about being able to have an H2A visa program that works for having farm labor,” Northey said.
Summarizing the president’s view, Northey said: “We absolutely need a program that brings in skilled ag workers and that is something that needs to happen. Once again, President Trump turned to Secretary Perdue and said: ‘You know, we need to work on that. We need a memo on that. We need to figure it out.’”
Will Northey leave Iowa for USDA post?
Iowa’s ag secretary said he might consider leaving the state and farming, if offered the right job at USDA. Northey said he was “very, very comfortable with Perdue, a former Georgia governor and state senator.” Northey said he was not offered a job during his visit to Washington to participate in the roundtable. However, he said he would consider a position that could make a difference for farmers — one “that might make it worth stepping away from the farm” and Iowa. Northey grows corn and soybeans with his family near Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa.
Did Trump administration officials take him around to some offices at USDA and say, “Maybe this could be your office?” Northey said. “No, they didn’t do that.”
However, Northey told the Iowa reporters he would certainly take phone calls from a 202 area code number (Washington, D.C.) if Perdue decides to call.
“I’ve had several opportunities to meet and talk to Secretary Perdue over the last couple of months,” said Northey. “I’m very excited for him as U.S. secretary of agriculture. He is down-to-earth, plainspoken and intelligent. He will focus on running USDA well.”