Earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue fittingly kicked off his “Back to Our Roots” RV tour by chatting with junior dairy exhibitors and farmers at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis. He followed up his two-day visit to America’s Dairyland with stops in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.
Along the way, Perdue met with farmers, ranchers, foresters, students, governors, members of Congress, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees and other stakeholders in an effort to make sure that facts-based, data-driven decisions lead the way as the USDA becomes intimately involved with Congress in deliberating and formulating the 2018 farm bill. This was the first of two RV tours the secretary will undertake this summer.
If Perdue’s Midwest tour accomplished anything, it offered some reassurance that, amid all the political turmoil in Washington, D.C., agriculture is in steady hands as the next farm bill begins to take shape. The current farm bill is set to expire a little more than a year from now, in September 2018.
Moments after a farm bill listening session with Perdue at the state fair, grain producer Kevin Malchine said Perdue seemed genuinely interested in hearing from farmers and “very personable” and “easy to talk to.” Indeed, Perdue comes across as very down to earth and approachable — not your prototypical politician.
Perdue told reporters that farmers and those representing them have been bending his ear these past few months mostly on issues surrounding trade, labor/immigration and regulations.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte hosted Perdue on his farm near Elk Mound on Aug. 4. In attendance were more than 40 Farm Bureau members, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, Congressman Sean Duffy and representatives from various commodity groups. Holte said Perdue’s “Back to Our Roots” tour gave Wisconsin farmers a chance to explain to the USDA chief the realities they face on a daily basis.
“During our time with Secretary Perdue, we discussed Wisconsin’s overall agricultural economy, dairy, trade, farm succession planning, immigration and rural broadband,” Holte said. “The conversation we had ... truly was like sitting down with an old farming friend.”
Leslie Shuler Svacina of Cylon Rolling Acres near Deer Park said she appreciated the opportunity to tell Perdue during a rural prosperity discussion in Wausau about the need for better rural broadband.
“Behind my red barn and pasture full of goats is a business that depends on the Internet to not only direct-market goat meat and breeding stock but also do basic business functions such as email and using my accounting service,” she said. “It’s a struggle on some days to even send email when we have such low Internet speeds.”
Not surprisingly, trade came up often on the trail, and with negotiations for the “new” North American Free Trade Agreement set to begin this week, Perdue says his message to the White House is that they first do no harm to agriculture. U.S. farm exports to Canada and Mexico quadrupled under the 1994 trade agreement, and U.S. farm groups fear that renegotiating the deal could disrupt what has been a profitable business.
During an Aug. 4 roundtable discussion on a farm near Garden City, Minn., AgriGrowth Executive Director Perry Aasness thanked Perdue for his leadership in expanding export opportunities for U.S. farmers and agribusinesses.
But not everyone is looking to exports as agriculture’s salvation in these tough economic times.
Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said the next farm bill is critically important, as many farmers are in their fourth straight year of declining net farm income. U.S. net farm income has dropped by 50 percent since 2013. He said the 2017 debt-to-asset ratio is the highest the agriculture industry has seen in three decades.
During his two days in Wisconsin, Perdue heard often about the need to rework the dairy industry’s safety net and perhaps curtail supply when necessary. The latest dairy herds report by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection shows that the state was down 283 dairy herds in the first half of 2017.
“Here in Wisconsin, we’ve seen devastating dips in dairy and crop prices, and that is reflecting in declining farm numbers. The American farm economy is on the brink of a crisis — we need a drastic change in direction in the next farm bill,” Von Ruden said. “It may be time to focus less on how technology and exports are going to save the day and more on what can be done to address declining farm numbers, struggling rural communities, growing environmental concerns and the staggering anti-competitive consolidation in ag sectors.”
Certainly, these are not easy times for agriculture, and many farmers are pinning their hopes for improvement on the next farm bill. With Perdue at the helm, it seems there could be some reason for optimism.