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Trade Is the Answer, Perdue Says In Hearing

Perdue says president saved best for last.

WASHINGTON - Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, seemingly a shoo-in to become agriculture secretary for President Trump, told senators on Thursday that larger exports are the remedy for farm-sector slump, promising to be “USDA’s chief salesman around the world.”

Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts said he would schedule a vote as soon as possible on the nomination, which would then go to the full Senate for a final vote. Perdue was the last cabinet nominee announced by Trump, raising complaints that he was giving short shrift to rural Americ despite its key role in his election. “I think the president must have saved the best for last,” said Perdue mildly.

Committee members repeatedly asked Perdue how he would expand farm exports in an administration that has threatened to rewrite trade relations with major customers for U.S. ag products. Roberts grumbled about “too many cooks in the kitchen” on trade policy. With the farm economy in a slump since 2013, exports beckon as a speedy way to generate revenue when domestic markets are sated.

“I plan to be on-site as USDA’s chief salesman around the world to sell these products, to negotiate these deals side by side with USTR, side by side with (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross,” Perdue told Montana Senator Steve Daines. “I believe USDA will be intimately involved...in selling our products.”

Perdue put farm income at the top of his priorities for action if confirmed, saying he would maximize the ability of producers to “sell the food and fiber that feed and clothe the world. We want to remove every obstacle and give them every opportunity to prosper.”

In responding to a question from Arkansas Senator John Boozman, Perdue said trade was a top issue raised by senators during conversations before the confirmation hearing.

“We’re seeing some of the lowest prices in years. Farmers are really struggling to be profitable,” he said. “I really believe trade is the answer. I look forward to being an adviser and counsel to this administration.”

Perdue also said he would be an advocate for immigration reform, particularly a change in the guest worker program, now limited to seasonal workers, to benefit dairy farmers who milk cows every day. Half or more of U.S. farm workers are undocumented, according to estimates, and Trump’s policy of strict enforcement of immigration law has created anxiety throughout agriculture to find a stable and legal workforce.

When Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy argued that dairy farmers, like sheep farmers, should be allowed year-round visas for guest workers, Perdue said, “There is a need, obviously,” and added, “I believe dairy qualifies for that as well.”

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow cited the January 19 announcement of Perdue for USDA – the longest search for an agriculture secretary since 1933 – and the administration’s proposal to cut discretionary spending at USDA by 21% as signs that “rural America has been an afterthought” for Trump.

 

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