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Huzzahs for New USDA Trade Office, Qualms About Stewardship and Rural Development

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a USDA reorganization that would take effect in mid-June, highlighted by creation of a high-level office to promote U.S. farm exports, with President Trump’s call for a smaller and more efficient government still on the docket. Small-farm advocates said rural economic development was downgraded by Perdue’s package “in favor of boosting international trade.”

Groups speaking for grain and livestock producers applauded the new post of undersecretary for trade, mandated by the 2014 farm law. Exports generate 20¢ of each $1 in farm income and Perdue said the new undersecretary “will help me…to be an unapologetic advocate for American products. My message for farmers is simple: You grow it, and we’ll sell it,” he said in an essay in the Wall Street Journal.

A USDA spokesman said the reorganization will become effective in 30 days and does not need legislative approval. The plan is “a down payment” on Trump’s executive order for agencies to propose a more efficient and smaller government, he said. “As we move forward, as we see opportunities to make further changes to the department that will improve the delivery of services to our wide array of customers, we will do so. USDA is in the process of preparing materials in response to the order.”

The package unveiled on Thursday would abolish the undersecretary for rural development and unite crop subsidy and land stewardship programs in the same operating arm. Both are significant changes. Lawmakers and the two largest farm groups were guarded in their initial assessments of those steps.

Rural development will become an office that reports directly to Perdue – an elevation in importance, according to USDA. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) questioned how much time Perdue would have for rural programs among his many duties. Groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund said “as long as conservation priorities do not take a back seat to farm production goals, both farmers and the environment can benefit” from having one undersecretary oversee crop subsidies and conservation, as proposed by Perdue.

“The impacts of such a significant reorganization are hard to predict without more information from USDA and the administration,” said president Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union, who cited the White House proposal in March for a 21% cut in discretionary spending by USDA. The senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, said Perdue’s package “would eliminate an important voice for rural America” – the undersecretary. The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees welcomed the undersecretary for trade and said they would review the rest of the package.

Said House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, “The committee will take a very close look at each of the proposed changes and this will be one of the many important topics we cover when the secretary appears before the committee next week.” Perdue is to testify on the rural economy on Wednesday.

The new undersecretary for trade would oversee the Foreign Agricultural Service with its global network of agricultural attachés and would lead USDA trade policy. That would diminish the power of the No. 3 officer at USDA, the undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, whose office would be oriented to domestic programs and re-named as the undersecretary for farm production and conservation in charge of the farm subsidies, crop insurance and conservation.

At present, the Farm Services Agency, which runs the farm program, also controls the Conservation Reserve, the largest land-idling program. A different undersecretary has jurisdiction over land, water, and wildlife stewardship programs for working lands. The reorganization would end the division of authority.

Perdue said the goal of the new mission area of farm production and conservation “is to provide a one-stop shop for USDA’s primary customers: America’s farmers, ranchers, and foresters.”

The NSAC said a change in the organization chart did not guarantee less paperwork at the farm level. “With no full proposal yet released that details this part of the reorganization, it is difficult to say whether or not it will result in more effective outcomes for farmers and the environment,” it said.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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