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USDA Nominees Give Top Priority to Larger U.S. Farm Exports

Under the approving eye of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, two Trump nominees for subcabinet posts at USDA told senators they will work to expand U.S. farm exports and bolster farm income. Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts concluded a brief confirmation hearing with the hint that the panel could vote next week on the men, who would be the first senior executives to join Perdue since the administration took office eight months ago.

Steve Censky (shown at right), nominated for the No. 2 USDA job of deputy secretary, promised “to be a fierce advocate for U.S. export interests.” Ted McKinney, nominated for the newly created post of undersecretary for trade, said he would spend significant time overseas to open “doors for our farmers and ranchers, [and] remov[e] trade barriers.” McKinney focused in particular on nonscientific trade barriers. “Too often, the United States plays by the rules but other nations do not,” he said. “There cannot be a double standard.”

The Trump administration is moving at a historically slow pace in filling USDA posts. In late April, Perdue had the tardiest start to his tenure of any agriculture secretary. He is the only USDA nominee to see a Senate vote. Perdue attended the early part of the confirmation hearing as a show of support for Censky and McKinney. Roberts called for a round of applause for Perdue, thanking him for the job he is doing, and saying, “[W]e need to get his team officially on board.”

So far, the White House has nominated five of the eight senior executives who would help Perdue put into action President Trump’s philosophy of regulatory relief, fair trade, and biofuel consumption. Democrats have threatened a fight against one nominee, Sam Clovis, a Trump confidant, to be the USDA’s chief scientist. Clovis is expected to be part of the next group of nominees at a confirmation hearing, a USDA official told reporters.

Perdue tweeted, “High marks to @USDA noms Steve Censky (Dep Sec) & Ted McKinney (U/S Trade) in Sen Ag hearing. Need them confirmed.” When he adjourned the hearing, Roberts said Censky, chief executive of the American Soybean Association, and McKinney, the Indiana agriculture director, had “tremendous expertise” and that committee approval of them was a formality that could be handled in a few minutes in coming days.

With the 2018 farm bill on the horizon, Roberts asked Censky and McKinney if they would help write legislation with no cuts to crop insurance. “Your answer is ‘yes,’” he told them drolly while underlining his views. The nominees took the hint.

Censky said he knew firsthand from decades of work in farm groups and as a USDA trade official in the 1980s that trade agreements can increase the flow of exports and trade barriers can reduce that flow. He put “diversification of markets,” foreign and domestic, at the top of his list of three goals. Second was “preparation for and adaptation to changing weather and climate,” followed by “expansion of broadband to rural America.”

McKinney said he would collaborate with USTR, the State Department, the Commerce Department “and anyone else involved in trade to find solutions” to unfair trade barriers. “This is perhaps the biggest challenge to science generally and our ability to export,” he said. In the negotiations over the new NAFTA, he said, “I won’t be satisfied” with an agreement that maintains the status quo of food and ag trade with Canada and Mexico. U.S. farm groups want to maintain duty-free access to the North American neighbors. “My goal would be to lift that ever higher … look for opportunities for growth all across our ag sector.”

Canada and Mexico account for one-third of U.S. food and ag trade annually. They rank second and third behind China as the top export markets and are the leading sources of U.S. food and ag imports. Overall, farm exports generate one-third of cash receipts for producers. The USDA forecasts exports at $139.8 billion, the third-highest on record, in the fiscal year that ends September 30.

To watch a video of the hearing or to read the written testimony of Censky and McKinney, click here.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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