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Trump’s Ag Secretary Delay Causes Jitters

It’s the subject of conversation at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention that’s wrapping up today in Phoenix and in the halls of the U.S. Senate. Even at National Farmers Union, a farm group with members who often vote for Democrats, there’s disappointment.

The unanswered question: Who will be President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of agriculture, and when will it be announced?

Presidents in recent history, Republicans and Democrats alike, normally choose their top ag leader after announcing cabinet members who will lead the nation’s defense and foreign affairs. But the delay has some in agriculture concerned.

Senator Charles Grassely, an Iowa farmer who heads the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Tuesday that he assumes Trump is being thoughtful about his choice but “I can’t shed much light on it.” Nor, could the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts [R-KS] when Grassley asked him recently. 

Grassley said he didn’t think it would affect Trump’s program for agriculture much. When asked about the details of that program, Grassley referred to a speech Trump made as a candidate in Sioux City, Iowa, where he pledged support for family farms and ethanol. Grassley said he also believes Trump will be supportive of efforts in Congress to repeal the estate tax, and he expects the unpopular Waters of the U.S. rule to be repealed or weakened under Trump – but that rule is administered by EPA, not the agriculture department.

Farm Bureau has endorsed Trump’s choice for EPA chief, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, but the lack of an ag secretary choice has come up at the group’s meeting, said Mary Kay Thatcher, a Farm Bureau lobbyist.

“I think there’s a feeling, a little bit, of being left out, maybe. How about us? When are they going to get around to agriculture?” Thatcher asked.

Thatcher said the transition team in New York has been announcing to the media each time someone comes in to interview for a top-level job. And the stream of ag secretary candidates continues, with the former head of CoBank, Bob Engel of Colorado, being among the latest.

“Everybody hears a lot of stuff, but nobody knows anything,” said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union. “I suspect it comes down to Trump and when he makes his mind up.”

As the head of a nonpartisan organization, Johnson didn’t campaign for Trump, but members of his group did vote for the president-elect, largely because they share Trump’s views about trade policies hurting the U.S. economy.

Johnson said farm groups and those who lobby for agricultural interests are worried.

“There’s a growing concern, at least in Washington, that it’s taking longer than it should take. In 11 days [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack and all of the political appointees are gone,” Johnson said on Monday of this week.

Another troubling sign is that before the New Year, Trump’s transition team had one person working at USDA’s Washington headquarters in the space cleared for the new administration, Johnson said. Last week the ag transition crew was up to three and this week it’s five, Johnson said.

“I think that’s the bigger concern, at least that’s what the folks in Washington are worried about,” he said.

“The other piece that’s been driving this,” Johnson added, “is there is a pretty strong sense that it was farmers in rural America who elected Trump, and there’s a growing feeling that’s not being appreciated.”

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