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Farmers and Ranchers Welcome Perdue to New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska
“They are very proud producers. They’re resilient. They’re hardy, but they’re hurting. And that’s the message I’m taking back to the president. They’re patriots, Mr. President, but they need your help,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said of farmers and ranchers he’d met after completing his fourth Back to Our Roots tour since assuming office in April 2017.
Farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness people welcomed the secretary as he made stops in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska mid-May.
Perdue made several stops in New Mexico. The 2017 USDA Crop Production Summary reports that New Mexican farmers planted 901,000,000 acres of crops last year. Produce is a large contributor to the agricultural industry in New Mexico. Dairy and other livestock are also an important part of the state agricultural economy.
Tribal College Leaders
Before the official tour open to press began, Perdue stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sunday, May 13 for the meeting of Tribal College Leaders. Representative Steve Pearce also attended.
“I greatly appreciate Secretary Perdue dedicating time during his visit to New Mexico to meet with these educational leaders,” the congressman wrote on his Facebook page.
In a press statement Pearce said, “The State of New Mexico, and the federal government must be working together to create educational opportunities for all New Mexicans that will allow individuals to find full-time employment and prosper. It is extremely encouraging to see Secretary Perdue dedicate time while in New Mexico to understand these institutions, the challenges they face, and how the Department of Agriculture can continue to assist the growth of education programs that provide the next generation with marketable skills. I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary Perdue and all involved to expand and promote educational choices for Tribal communities.
“Tribal colleges and universities play a vital role in not only educating the next generation of New Mexicans, but preserving and protecting Native American heritage and culture. For too long, education in rural and underserved communities in New Mexico, many of which are Tribal communities, have not received the support and assistance needed or deserved,” he continued.
Santa Fe National Forest
To start the tour and the week, Perdue met with Santa Fe National Forest employees and cooperators as part of the annual Forest Management Plan consultation meeting on Monday.
Santa Fe Watershed
Later on Monday the Secretary had a meeting with New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez to learn more about the Santa Fe Watershed and forest treatments.
New Mexico Producer Roundtable
Perdue’s final stop in Santa Fe was a roundtable discussion with the state’s agricultural leaders hosted at the New Mexico State Capitol. New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte and Martinez were also present.
“It was great to have a sitting secretary come into New Mexico and sit down with producers,” says Witte. “That was unique. I can’t remember the last time we had a sitting secretary come visit with the people in New Mexico, at least in my tenure.”
It’s no surprise that trade and the farm bill were hot topics among producers who attended the event, but they also expressed concerns about ag labor, forest management, and staffing levels at USDA county offices.
New Mexico continues to face drought, especially in the northern half of the state. Throughout the month of May, the U.S. drought monitor has shown extreme and exceptional drought conditions across that region. Witte says producers emphasized the importance of USDA drought programs at the roundtable.
“I was encouraged by what the secretary said about the forest service,” Witte explained, saying Perdue has directed forest service personnel to get on the ground and talk with the producers neighboring the forests about management and endangered species. The U.S. General Services Administration reports that 42% of the state of New Mexico is federal land.
Overall, Witte says the roundtable was positive. He said, “The secretary is very well versed in a lot of the aspects. He could relate to them with his background. It is encouraging to have a secretary that really understands some of the plights.”
Colorado was the second state Perdue visited as part of the fourth Back to Our Roots tour. A study by Colorado State University indicates agriculture contributes $41 billion to the state economy and employs nearly 173,000 people.
Michael Hirakata hosted Secretary Perdue on his family’s fifth-generation melon farm in Rocky Ford, Colorado. The Hirakatas grow cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon on their southeast Colorado farm.
“What an honor to host the United States secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue and ag commissioner of Colorado, Don Brown!” the farm posted on their Facebook page. Several members of the family posted photos with the secretary.
Tuesday morning Perdue stopped at Food Maven in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a roundtable discussion with the Food Maven board, partnering producers, and restauranteurs.
Food Maven is a for-profit food distribution center that works with several key partners in the food system to reduce food waste in the Colorado Springs area.
"We are so grateful for the Secretary’s interest," said Megan Cornish, Vice President of Government and Industry Affair for Food Maven. "It was very exciting to see someone in a position to influence the entire US food system taking an interest in food waste, and our approach to solving it. It means that all of the hard work that we have put into growing FoodMaven is starting to gain real momentum towards achieving our goal of being better stewards of food."
“Food waste is a major problem and the innovators like Food Maven are tackling it. They buy excess food from producers and distributors and find homes for it, like restaurants and school systems, and also donate to food banks. They save food which would otherwise never make it to plate,” Perdue explained in a tweet.
Although the meeting was closed to press, the secretary shared comments with the press and other community members gathered at the site afterward. He applauded the company’s innovative work to find sustainable solutions for food waste.
After the event Cornish explained, "While the Secretary was at FoodMaven, we discussed our business model and the specific way FoodMaven is a solution for our buyers and suppliers. The Secretary was able to hear from producers who sell food through the FoodMaven Marketplace and some of our buyers who get to take advantage of the great food we offer. We also discussed how FoodMaven’s logistics are providing solutions to local suppliers; we are getting Colorado restaurants access to more Colorado food."
She added, "We are fully supportive of the Secretary’s push to prioritize food waste. We are excited to see the USDA taking the lead to generate wholistic solutions to food waste and are confident the USDA is committed to supporting the people who produce our food."
Colorado Producer Roundtable
The Colorado Department of Agriculture hosted the secretary for his next stop on Tuesday. Over lunch farmers, ranchers, and other people from the agriculture industry gathered to share ideas and concerns. President of the American Farm Bureau Federation Zippy Duvall was also present.
Again, producers expressed their thoughts about trade and access to export markets enthusiastically. One guest asked specifically how agriculture was going to be impacted as part of ongoing negotiations with China.
“I can tell you that I’ve heard the president charge the negotiators in these discussions with China, that his ambition is to ensure that China doubles its ag purchases from the United States,” Perdue responded. “He’s very focused, as you know, on closing this trade deficit. And one of the easiest ways that China can do that is through ag production.”
Perdue continued on the topic of trade with China saying, “We sell them about one in every three rows of soybeans, but they buy from a lot of other people too. The president has a very unique negotiating style as we know, and it looks like that was a change to negotiators. It was his conversation with President Xi is that we want you to buy more agricultural products and he has quantified that $25 to $50 billion dollars. That would be huge and amazing for agriculture.”
The farm bill, rural broadband, and resources for beginning farmers were also topics of concern for those in attendance.
Nick Levendofsky, director of external affairs for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, raised the issue of staffing levels in county USDA offices as the event wrapped up. After thanking the secretary for his advocacy on several key issues, Levendofsky said, “As you well know, as our secretary, your department touches every county in the nation and we’re seeing some significant issues with shortages in our county offices and wondered what your plans are for that to help our producers on that level.”
Perdue explained having a strategic hiring plan in place was important to him but couldn’t be put together without undersecretary Bill Northey, who spent four months in a holding pattern waiting for his nomination to be approved.
“I’m going to hold him responsible for the customer service portion in FPAC, the food production and conservation, and I didn’t feel comfortable having other career people design a strategic hiring plan,” Perdue said.
A strategic plan is essential to get the right people in the right place doing the right things at the right time, Perdue explained. Northey and others recently submitted a proposal.
“They brought in a very good plan, which was approved last Friday with levels in the right places that you’ll start seeing populating these county offices. We’re later than we should have been, and we don’t make any excuses for that other than if I’m going to hold Bill Northey responsible, I thought he should have had a real input into that.”
The Colorado Department of Agriculture published a video of the Q & A session on their YouTube page.
“We had a great conversation with Secretary Perdue and Colorado’s agricultural leaders. The current challenges and opportunities facing our farmers and ranchers were discussed, and I applaud the secretary for making the trip to hear from those working in the fields and growing our food, fiber, and fuel,” said Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown in a press statement.
Brown accompanied Perdue on several other visits in the state.
Robert Sakata and his parents hosted Secretary Perdue on their produce farm for a tour and discussion later on Tuesday. His father, Bob Sakata, is 92 years old and still comes into the office. Bob began farming in Colorado 70 years ago after being released from a Japanese internment camp in Utah.
After some time visiting with the family about the labor challenges they face, Sakata, Purdue, Brown, and Duvall joined more than a dozen more farmers from the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association for more conversation. Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper also attended part of the event.
Most of the time was spent discussing the extreme importance of ag labor in the produce industry. Several growers expressed their frustrations with the current H2A program, but they agreed, “If we didn’t have H2A, we wouldn’t exist.”
Colorado farmer Gail Knapp suggested that if her farm had the ability to stagger the arrival of H2A works through one application, rather than reapplying for each wave of arrivals throughout the season, it would save time and money.
Other growers expressed their desire to be able to share workers with neighboring farms if weather or other conditions outside their control prevent the farm from doing the work the H2A workers had been approved to do.
In a tour that was closed to media and other guests, Perdue and Duvall toured the Greeley location of Leprino Foods.
According to the company website, Leprino Foods is the world’s largest mozzarella cheese maker and top producer of whey protein and dairy ingredients.
In a brief interview after the tour, Perdue acknowledged the impact of NAFTA negotiations on the dairy industry, but said he is concerned that tackling NAFTA and trade negotiations with China at the same time is a heavy lift.
Duvall also gave a short interview after the tour. He expressed his gratitude for recent attention agriculture has been receiving saying, “Farmers need to understand that this is unusual for us to have this kind of dialogue with an administration. This president is actually talking about what trade does or might do to agriculture and you can go back in history: It’s been a long time since we’ve heard a president come out front and just talk about agriculture. Thinking about the forgotten people of this country, we’ve been forgotten for years and years and years, and now we’re getting some attention.”
National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation and National Seed Storage Lab
On Wednesday, Perdue stopped at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation and National Seed Storage Lab on the Colorado State University campus to start the morning. The secretary, his team, and media got an extensive tour of the facility where they house genetic material for animals, plants, insects, microbes, and other living things.
The air in Ft. Collins, Colorado, is dry and thin making it an ideal location for seed preservation, explained one scientist hosting the tour.
APHIS National Wildlife Research Center
Later on Wednesday, Perdue spent time at the APHIS National Wildlife Research Center.
To start the meeting several researchers gave an overview of the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program and Feral Swine Research Program. The goal of the program is to minimize damage caused by feral swine including destruction of natural resources and agriculture.
In addition to the presentation regarding feral swine, the secretary and other guests toured the APHIS facilities.
The on-site genetics lab allows further study of the destructive animals.
The toxicology lab is used to develop and test toxicity of baits and other tools used in the feral swine program. The scientists want to make sure toxins put out will only impact the targeted species.
Secretary Perdue also got the chance to practice piloting a drone while at the research center. The technology is used to monitor populations of the feral swine.
The research team was proud to show off the trailer system they developed to work with the feral swine caught in their traps.
As the tour came to a close, Perdue visited a building where skunks in a rabies research project are housed.
Finally, Perdue and a few members of his security team enjoyed some target practice as part of a darting demonstration. Several different darts and guns were explained.
More than 40% of the land in Wyoming is owned by the federal government. Livestock is an important part of the state agricultural economy.
The secretary crossed over into Wyoming later in the day on Wednesday to make a stop at a nonprofit called Climb Wyoming. Climb works with single mothers in the state to help them gain life skills, access mental health services, job training, and secure job placement. Support also continues for women who graduate from the program.
In meetings at the Climb offices Perdue heard how SNAP and other federal programs are used to fund their work. The 2017 Climb Wyoming Progress Report indicated their six regional offices have served 2,215 women and 3,714 children.
Wyoming Cattle Producers
Wednesday night Perdue was welcomed by the Wyoming Cattle Producers for a roundtable discussion with several members and other agriculturalists in the state. Director of Wyoming Agriculture Doug Miyamoto led the event.
“It was an honor to introduce him and have the chance to visit about ag issues in Wyoming,” the Wyoming Department of Agriculture posted on its Facebook page.
According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture website, the livestock industry contributes $6 billion dollars to the state’s economy each year. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska produce more commercial red meat and cattle on feed than any other state. The state is also a significant producer of commodity grains, both for domestic and international markets. Nebraska ranks third in corn production nationally. Many farms in Nebraska are irrigated.
Nebraska Producer Roundtable
The final stop of the fourth Back to Our Roots tour was in Alliance, Nebraska. More than 100 farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness people from around the state gathered at Ackerman Ag Service and Supply to participate in discussion with Secretary Perdue and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. Nebraska Department of Agriculture Director Steve Wellman was present as well.
Several attendees expressed their appreciation for Perdue’s interest in meeting with producers face to face in their own communities.
“It's pretty nice to get Secretary Perdue to western Nebraska. We’re pretty sparse out here with dryland farms and cattle and not very often do we get this type of national media and federal government out to our area,” says Casey Schuhmacher, a rancher from northwest Nebraska.
Schuhmacher appreciates seeing the secretary outside of Washington, D.C. “I like to see that we have an administration that listens to us and understand some of the issues that we see out here. Every answer you heard from Secretary Perdue was knowledgeable and that’s very impressive for a federal official to come to western Nebraska and sit here and talk with the farmers and ranchers and know what we’re talking about.”
Another young farmer agreed. “We’re really excited for the secretary to come, especially to Nebraska. Sometimes in the middle of the state we might feel a little left out, so it’s nice to see the USDA and the secretary take some time out of their extremely busy schedules to come out here and talk with us,” she said.
Perdue also seemed to be happy to be out and about in rural America. “This is the heartland. When the president talks about tell me what farmers are thinking, this is the place to come to. You’ve got a great ag state here,” the secretary told reporters after the event in Nebraska.
It was important to several farmers in attendance that Perdue heard about the importance of access to foreign markets and trade when he visited the state.
“Trade is extremely important to Nebraska and the country as a whole. Without trade, our ag economy would be worse than we are today, and we can’t afford that right now,” one farmer explained.
The crowd reacted with audible excitement when Governor Ricketts brought up getting Nebraska beef into China.
Schuhmacher was one of the excited attendees. “I want to see more of it. I really think we have an opportunity there, and I think the Trump administration is doing a good job for us on trade,” he said.
“We just really appreciate his and undersecretary McKinney’s efforts on behalf of the farmers across the country. We appreciate it and hope he continues,” another farmer added.
Other topics of concern in Nebraska were rural broadband and ethanol.