U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told a meeting in Hartford the current disruptions to trade agreements are hard on farmers and must be resolved soon. But the Trump appointee didn’t go as far as to criticize his boss’s approach to trade issues.
Perdue was in Connecticut for the annual meeting of NASDA, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
He told the assembled state delegates that he hears from farmers across the country that their top issues are trade, labor and regulation.
On trade he said he’s hopeful of a resolution of talks over NAFTA soon, bringing Canada back into the trade deal. But he says the US will hold the line on Canada selling its milk cheaply outside its own borders.
“I think Canada has recognized and understands when it comes to the dairy, while they want to maintain their supply management program, my request is they manage their supply,” said Perdue.
And he said that he hears from at least some farmers that they understand Trump’s approach to trade with China, where the imposition of tariffs has driven down the price of soybeans and affected the overseas market for many American products including dairy, poultry and pork.
“They get it - I’ve told the president many times, and he’s sort of adopted the word for our farmers is patriots, but I’ve also told him they can’t pay the bills of patriotism,” said Perdue.
In fact the tariff war with China has lead Trump to create a special $12 billion aid package for farmers.
On labor issues, Perdue told the audience he’s looking for support in Congress for a bill that would implement a guest worker program, cutting the need for farmers to rely on undocumented labor.
"We need a stable, reliable, legal agricultural workforce in this country," he said. "I hope that Congress will see to pass that bill to give our farmers an opportunity to rely on a guest worker program without having the shadows of illegality lurking over them all the time."
He also enthusiastically backed a controversial provision in the Farm Bill that would impose tougher work restrictions on people who participate in the SNAP or food stamp program. He complained that states abuse the waiver program that allows them to extend SNAP benefits.
"We want to extend the generosity and compassion of the American taxpayer to those people who need help that way, but while we do that, the way we help them is not giving a fish every day, but teaching them to fish."
Advocates are concerned that the changes to the SNAP program contained in the House version of the Farm Bill would remove benefits from people with disabilities who cannot comply with stricter work requirements. It could also have an impact on those whose employers cannot offer them sufficient hours.