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Are Trump's Cabinet Picks Really Ag-Friendly?

It’s no secret that President-elect Donald Trump is choosing big oil supporters and business-savvy individuals to lead important parts of his administration, but do these people hold the same beliefs that Trump campaigned on to farmers and ranchers across the U.S.? 

The American Farm Bureau anticipates sitting down with these new leaders and sharing the story of agriculture, the issues the industry needs to solve, and the grassroot policies that are critical to farming, in part because of the degree of experience many of the cabinet picks have.

“It is a comfort that we clearly have folks coming in that understand the business and importance of being able to operate under burdensome regulations,” says Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau’s executive director for public policy. “We’re not going to agree all the time, but that’s kind of the nature of the process here in Washington. I feel equally confident that we’ll find ways to work together with President-elect Trump’s team and the new Congress.”

Concerns About Ethanol, RFS Support

Maintaining ethanol’s consumption in the U.S. is at the top of many farmers’ minds as many of Trump’s choices for department heads have been vocally anti-Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the past. According to the Department of Energy, U.S. ethanol consumption has gone up in recent years. In fact, data from the agency found that 25 states and the District of Columbia consumed gasoline with an average of over 10% ethanol in 2015.

In an interesting twist, the new head of that very agency is former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who opposed the RFS in 2015 and tried to get a federal waiver from the RFS mandate for his state years prior. Perry also famously could not remember the name of the Department of Energy when speaking in a debate leading up to the 2012 presidential election. In that debate, he was trying to remember the agency’s name because he was hoping to eliminate it upon election as president. 

That said, Perry served as agriculture commissioner in Texas before becoming the state’s governor and earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Texas A&M.

“He is someone we feel understands us in agriculture,” says Moore. “It would make me confident that we would have the opportunity to visit with somebody who is well-versed in what farmers and ranchers need and would clearly understand how agriculture and energy can and should work together.”

Art Barnaby, a professor of agricultural economics and K-State research and Extension specialist, is trying to stay realistic about what the new agency heads can really accomplish in their time in office. He is also confident in the many ethanol supporters sitting in powerful seats in Congress right now, citing Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as a champion of the RFS.

“I’m not sure we’ll see as much change as those who want change really want, because the bureaucracy just doesn’t change,” Barnaby says. “Outside groups and people on the other side can slow things down a lot.” 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt being named the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been worthy of chatter around the agriculture industry as he has fought climate change regulation and Obama’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule put forth by the EPA in the past. In areas like the Flint Hills of Kansas, the idea of a leader like Pruitt is exciting as area ranchers deal with strict regulation and pushback when burning off their native grasses for management purposes. 

“It’s very clear that Mr. Pruitt is not afraid to take on issues and take them into the courts when he feels that the regulatory process isn’t working correctly,” says Moore. “Based on what our Oklahoma Farm Bureau folks have said, as well as the Arkansas Farm Bureau folks, he has sorted out some state issues in a collaborative way.”

However, Pruitt considers himself an advocate for fossil fuels and has been adamantly against the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in the past. 

Some of Trump’s choices for cabinet heads have openly disagreed with the departments they’re now running. That’s definitely the case with Perry and Pruitt, so Barnaby isn’t necessarily convinced that the leaders will be able to rally together the existing agency employees when they’ve spoken out against their work and efforts for years.

“Somehow they’re going to have to figure out how to work with a bureaucracy,” says Barnaby. “It’s not like a private company where you can come in and fire people.”

Trump tapped another supporter of the coal, oil, and gas industries for secretary of interior — Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, a retired Navy SEAL. According to Barnaby, there’s speculation that Zinke will try to open up oil drilling on government land, but it’s hard to say what major policy shifts he’ll be able to muster.

Since 2015 when he made his debut in the House of Representatives, Zinke has been criticized by environmental and conservation groups. In the House, he serves on the Armed Services and Natural Resources committees.

Choosing An Ag-Educated Ambassador To China

When looking for an individual who could build bridges with reluctant Chinese government officials, the President-elect turned to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, the longest serving governor in the nation, to fill the spot of ambassador to China. After speaking harshly of Chinese trade and currency practices, Trump needed someone with an existing relationship with the country. Branstad’s long-term friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinxing made him a qualified choice.

“He could be playing good cop, bad cop for all I know,” says Barnaby. “It could turn out to be good, or it could turn out to be very bad.”

Branstad is a clear good cop for agriculture since he’s spent decades serving a state of corn, soybean, and livestock producers. As governor, he’s also been a big supporter of ethanol, an industry that his son, Eric Branstad, is a leader in.

Less Obvious, But Important Cabinet Positions To Ag

“When you get down to it for us in agriculture, the attorney general, the department of homeland security, and the department of labor all play key roles in finding solutions to addressing our labor needs,” says Moore, who seemed pleased with Trump's choice of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for the attorney general spot.

Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, will head up the nation’s labor department, pending approval. Puzder has spoken out against raising the minimum wage in the past and has also made a point that there’s a need for immigrant workers in the U.S. He is a big fan of E-Verify, a system that helps to ensure employees are legal workers. The system is something that Puzder considers an asset in his restaurants.

In the past, Puzder has spoken out over menu labeling as he believes there isn’t a need for it since there isn’t a real problem to be solved.

The American Farm Bureau is looking forward to seeing announcements about a new U.S. trade representative and, of course, the new secretary of agriculture. 

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