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USDA Secretary Perdue visits Michigan, pushes USMCA: 'The world is watching'

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue answered questions briefly after a town hall event in Frankenmuth. (WWMT)
Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue answered questions briefly after a town hall event in Frankenmuth. (WWMT)
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Trade policies and subsidy programs were major talking points during a town hall in Frankenmuth on Thursday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary.

Secretary Sonny Perdue listened to farmers and agriculture industry leaders who asked about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that has not passed Congress yet, and other trade plans. Perdue has made other stops in Michigan and he said it’s important for him to get to states across the country and hear from farmers directly.

“Farmers are interesting, they like to look you in the eye. They can send an email or write an email, but they respect when you come and respect them by looking at the ground, feel challenges they have here, feel the heartbeat of what they’re struggling with. That’s my job. That can make me a more effective advocate to the President and to the administration,” he said. "He asks me when I get back, ‘how’s it going out there, Sonny?’ I have the opportunity to tell him. I told him a few weeks ago, ‘Mr. President, it’s tough and its’ getting tougher’. He says well that’s negative and I say well you pay me to tell you the truth and what’s what we do.”

The USMCA is an important part of agriculture trade in the future, according to Perdue. Some lawmakers – mainly democrats – have said the plan, which would replace the North America Free Trade Agreement, lacks teeth and enforceability standards.

“Most of the concern I have heard is over enforceability. Do you trust the Mexicans to live up to it? Well that’s always it,” Perdue said. “What the world is finding out they have an administration in the United States of America that is pretty serious about enforceability.”

The secretary said lawmakers in Congress need to get on board with the USMCA and the industry would be negatively impacted if it doesn’t get implemented.

“I don’t even like to contemplate the USMCA would not get passed. It’s an evil thought,” he said.

While the USMCA has been at the forefront of rallies and stops for Trump and his surrogates, it has gotten little attention in Washington. Perdue said it’s because politicians are getting hung-up on other issues, citing the latest hearings on Capitol Hill about the phone call between President Trump and Ukraine.

“It’s like a political scavenger hunt out here. Going from Russia to Ukraine and then something else when this one falls flat,” he said.

Perdue spent much of the time praising Trump and the work he said has been done to make farmers’ lives easier. He touched on the rollback of the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) plan, that Perdue said, was complicated and made it hard for farmers to follow. The WOTUS rule was under the Clean Water Act umbrella and dealt with federal protections of ‘navigable’ water. Perdue said the process is underway to write language for a plan that replaces WOTUS.

“Farmers I believe are rule followers. They want to be compliant if they can understand it,” he said.

Beyond the USMCA, Perdue hailed the latest work on a Japanese trade agreement. In a press release on September 25, Perdue said the agreement “is a better deal for the entire U.S. economy.” According to the USDA, the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement will provide America’s farmers and ranchers enhanced market access in our third largest agricultural export market. When implemented, this agreement will enable American producers to compete more effectively with countries that currently have preferential tariffs in the Japanese market.

The USDA said of the $14.1 billion in U.S. food and agricultural products imported by Japan in 2018, $5.2 billion were already duty free. Under this first-stage initial tariff agreement, Japan will eliminate or reduce tariffs on an additional $7.2 billion of U.S. food and agricultural products.

Products that will have reduced tariffs may include: fresh beef, frozen beef, fresh pork and frozen pork. Those products that will have tariffs eliminated may include: almonds, blueberries, cranberries, walnuts, sweet corn, grain sorghum, food supplements, broccoli and prunes. Other products that will benefit from staged tariff elimination will possibly include: wine, cheese and whey, ethanol, frozen poultry, processed pork, fresh cherries, beef offal, frozen potatoes, oranges, egg products and tomato paste.

Niche farmers attended the town hall as well, which also had Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation President, and Carl Bednarski, Michigan Farm Bureau President. Northern Michigan cherry producers asked about a short-term solution to the struggles after dumping of Turkish cherries on the market.

The cherry growers impacted by the dumping, which led to a loss of profit and even some farms shutting down, are responsible for raising their own complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Recently, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-MI, applauded plans announced by the ITC to institute tariffs against Turkish tart cherry exporters. Peters introduced plans to establish a task force within the U.S. Department of Commerce to investigate potential trade abuses throughout the international marketplace and better ensure it has the tools and abilities to support American businesses looking to expand both here at home and around the globe.

Perdue applauded the ITC for the tariff announcement, but said it would likely face litigation and would be a slow process.

“It won’t be in 2019 but we will do it as expeditiously as possible. We’re trying to protect our industries and this is a good example of trying to do that,” Perdue said. “I think these people are going to be rewarded for bringing that case and demonstrating the damage that’s been done.”

The Department of Commerce is currently scheduled to announce its final determinations on the matter in December.

“This industry had been predatory and the percentages were amazing. It’s going to be interesting to see what the award is there,” Perdue said.

Michigan farmers have dealt with trying financial times the last year due to flooding and a delayed planting season. An August acreage report from the USDA estimates 870,000 acres in Michigan did not get planted this year; that’s about 17.3% of the fields available. For perspective, the USDA’s data estimates about 7% of fields in country did not get planted.

In Michigan, the food and agriculture industry gives the economy more than $100 billion boost each year. Perdue said federal safety nets are in place to ensure farmers can stay afloat and return the next year, but the subsidies and other programs will “not make a farmer whole.”

“There’s not a farmer in this group or across America that would rather not have a good crop at a fair price than a government check,” he said.

Perdue said he will take what he hears from visiting farms across the country back to the White House to advocate for them. With the 2020 presidential election just over a year away, Perdue said the agricultural industry needs another four years of a Trump Administration. If Congress can’t get the USMCA done, Perdue said it will send the wrong message to the rest of the world.

“I think from a regulatory perspective, I think the President committed to get better trade deals and I think that’s exactly what he does. I think you will see a United States respected around the world in a way that hadn’t been in a while,” Perdue said, pushing for Trump’s re-election. “The world is watching. If we cannot get an agreement with people on the north and south of us, how can we have an agreement with the world on trade?”

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