WASHINGTON, D.C. (DTN) -- How complicated is the path toward prosperity in rural America? Pretty darn complex, if the staffing of President Donald Trump's new Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force is any indication.
The 25-person task force contains members from 23 different government departments and councils and is led by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The group met for the first time Thursday at USDA, where each member presented their pitch for helping agriculture and rural America thrive in the next four years.
Despite the sprawling membership and the fact that many of the departments remain understaffed, Perdue vowed the task force would produce an action plan ready to execute by October 22.
A number of key issues affecting agriculture surfaced in the meeting, including reworking the waters of the U.S. rule (WOTUS), international trade relationships and foreign barriers to biotech farm products.
On other issues, such as the massive budget cuts facing USDA and many rural federal programs and reconciling the president's tough stance on immigration with farm labor needs, Perdue and the task force members were mostly silent.
THE PROBLEM AT HAND
Perdue presented a grim view of the rural landscape at the beginning of the meeting.
"Eight-five percent of our impoverished counties are in rural areas," he said. "That means one in four rural children live in poverty -- that's the highest rate since 1986. And those of us involved in agriculture know the farm income from its high in 2013 is down 50%. There are very few businesses and industries that could survive a 50% cut in revenue over four years."
He commended President Trump for the April 25 executive order that initiated the task force's creation. See it here: http://bit.ly/….
Task force members include the heads of government departments such as Labor, Energy, Transportation, Education, Health and Human Services, the EPA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
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A challenge certain to face the task force is that many of these departments remain understaffed, due to unusually long delays in presidential appointments. The Secretary of the Department of Labor, for instance, has only been in office since May 3, and the agency is still scrambling to fill seats there. Secretary Perdue's own appointment was also historically late; he wasn't sworn in until April 25.
AG ISSUES ADDRESSED
The word "overregulation" surfaced frequently throughout the members' brief presentations to Secretary Perdue. Both Rick Perry, secretary of the Department of Energy, and a representative for EPA named the removal of burdensome regulations as among their top priorities.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer honed in on trade deficits and other hurdles facing U.S. agricultural exports.
"One of our highest priorities in trade is opening markets, and the way we do that, in part, is to tear down barriers to trade that are not science-based," he said. Lighthizer vowed to bring cases of this nature to the World Trade Organization and increase ag exports.
Tate Bennett, a deputy administrator at EPA, said rewriting WOTUS would be a two-step process. EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt will withdraw the law, and then the agency will focus on hearing from rural stakeholders who are affected by such regulation, she said.
"Secretary Pruitt is committed to going directly to those impacted by it to see what looks workable in their state," Bennett said.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, said the agency hopes to slow the "brain drain" from rural America by making technology more available via better Internet access.
"It all comes down to a sense of hope," said Pai. "There are a lot of small towns in this country...where folks are skeptical about the future. They don't think of rural America as a place to raise a family, to get a job, to build a bright future for yourself, so they move away. Technology is one way of addressing that," he said.
IMMIGRATION AND BUDGET CUTS
Trump's strong rhetoric on halting illegal immigration and increasing deportations has raised concerns for many industries that rely on migrant farm labor, such as dairy, fruit and vegetable producers.
Perdue singled out this mid-meeting, saying, "A reliable farm supply of agricultural workers is very, very important."
However, the Department of Labor's chief of staff Wayne Palmer was conspicuously silent on the issue during his presentation. Nor did Perdue mention how the task force would reconcile a crackdown on immigration with the illegal labor force that each year fills America's fruit and vegetable fields and dairy parlors.
Perdue also did not mention the major budget cuts facing USDA and other federal institutions that serve farmers and the rural population during the meeting.
In an answer to reporters' questions after the meeting, however, he said, "Agriculture is waiting to see the budget that's been put together -- the president has submitted that. We'll see where we come out. Rural development is -- I can assure you -- from [Trump's] perspective, very important."
You can view the meeting here: http://bit.ly/….
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.
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