Perdue Offers Sunny Outlook

Ag Secretary Stresses Defense of Biofuels, Desire to Boost Ag Trade to China

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up a t-shirt from "Practical Farmers of Iowa," touting cover crops in the state. Perdue got a good laugh out of it during his trip to a feedyard near Nevada, Iowa, on Friday. (Photo by Chris Clayton)

NEVADA, Iowa, (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue spoke to Iowa farm leaders Friday morning, reassuring them he would take the lead in trade talks for farmers and defend renewable fuels production, which is critical to Midwest agriculture.

Perdue has been on the job less than two weeks, but he has already made trips to Kansas City, Missouri, and central Iowa, promising to relieve farmers from regulatory burdens while working on critical policy issues. Perdue's visit to Nevada, Iowa, on Friday was dubbed as his major policy speech, but Perdue's talk was more about the atmosphere he wants to bring to USDA and how he is going to do business. Perdue also touted the work by President Donald Trump and the White House to roll back regulations on businesses, including farmers.

"We want to let farmers farm again," Perdue said. "We want to let ranchers ranch again, and we want to grow food for the world."

The agriculture secretary stressed that the USDA is going to make decisions involving farmers and ranchers that are based on "sound science, facts-based and data-driven." The USDA motto under Perdue's watch is going to be "Do right and feed everyone," he said.

Perdue also said President Trump wants him to spend time in the countryside to let farmers know that agriculture is vital to the U.S. economy. "He (Trump) understands that Iowa is vital to U.S. agriculture and technology and science is vital," Perdue said.

Farmers and others stressed to Perdue the importance of biofuels to the state. The secretary made it clear he understood the role ethanol plays in agriculture as well as the increased use of all forms of renewable energy. Perdue referenced Trump's campaign statement, saying, "Renewable energy -- ethanol -- is here to stay." He added, "And we're going to look to new technologies to be more efficient."

Perdue said ethanol is a mature industry that continues to grow and thrive. "I look forward to giving the president better ideas from the Renewable Fuels Standard and other things that are going to help it do even better," he said.

Perdue toured the 5,000-head Couser Cattle Co., feedyard with perfect weather conditions. He gave his speech with local high-school students flanking him. Perdue was impressed with feedyard owner Bill Couser's operation, which Perdue described as "a very technical, scientific production system that not only grows healthy, wholesome food, but also grows a healthy environment."

Perdue got into the technological details of describing the mono-slope barns at Couser's feedyard and how they were designed to protect the cattle in both the winter and summer. "As I said, Bill, we ought to be unapologetic about how we do things in animal agriculture," Perdue said. "I would love for the activists to come to your farm and see how well those cattle are cared for."

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Regarding trade, Perdue said the North American Free Trade Agreement has been good for agriculture, but it needs to be renegotiated and updated for other sectors of the economy. He seemed more enthusiastic about Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad being confirmed as ambassador to China and eventually reopening China to U.S. beef.

"Gov. Branstad and I are going to go to China and sell all the Iowa beef we can, right," Perdue said to the applause of the crowd.

While stressing his need to play a major role in trade talks, Perdue told DTN he did not have specific plans for a trade trip at the moment. Still, the secretary indicated he would like to go to China.

"I like to go to the big customers and sell big. You know, go big or go home," Perdue said. "Gov. Branstad is going to be in a great market there."

Asked by reporters about immigration and farm-labor issues, Perdue acknowledged farmers rely heavily on migrant workers, many of whom are in the country illegally. Perdue said he supports the president and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to remove the "criminal illegal element" out of the country.

"But we have got to be very careful we don't disrupt a farm-labor supply here that has been very integral to agricultural production," Perdue said.

Perdue did not address the pending livestock marketing rules that carried over from the Obama administration, but he told reporters that he and his staff were just starting a review of the rules.

Perdue did tell reporters in the feedyard setting that, because of the potential impacts on the beef, pork and poultry industries, he and his staff were just starting a review of the livestock marketing rules that carried over from the Obama administration.

"Obviously, as you might imagine, there are some differing views in those areas, and we're going to consider it very carefully," Perdue said. "I told you we were facts-based, data-driven decision-makers. We're going to listen to people on both sides and hopefully come out with the best decision for all."

In his speech, Perdue offered strong reassurances to farmers, especially with statements in support of renewable fuels. That even included Perdue sticking a button on his shirt, "Don't mess with RFS."

Bill Northey, Iowa's agriculture secretary, said Perdue made it clear the Trump administration supports ethanol despite not offering any specific policy recommendations.

"He certainly did say we support the RFS and we're going to be supporters of renewable fuels," Northey said.

Further, Perdue made it clear he is going to be personally active on the trade front, Northey said. "He wants to be, when it's appropriate, at the negotiating table to make sure agriculture is well represented," Northey said.

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said he is excited about Perdue's business background and what the agriculture secretary brings to the outlook for farmers. Hill and others noted Perdue has already had some impact on agriculture by averting a disaster when the White House was considering revocation of NAFTA.

"Now it is a more measured negotiation that should bring more benefit to all of America," Hill said. "So he has got that to his credit."

Northey's name has been mentioned regarding top positions at USDA. Northey said he did not have any conversations Friday with Perdue about jobs, but Northey is interested in serving at USDA under Perdue in a handful of positions if asked. "I have got a great position here, so it has got to be something I feel I could be valuable at for Iowa farmers and the country's farmers," Northey said..

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Chris Clayton