When David Valadao, congressman from California’s 21st district, introduced Sonny Perdue, the United States Secretary of Agriculture and former governor of Georgia, it was apparent that this cabinet official felt right at home with the dozens of Central Valley farmers who attended Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting. Perdue opened Tuesday’s meeting at the 51st World Ag Expo in Tulare with some background of how he came to be Secretary.
Perdue’s story began with some life experiences growing up on the family dairy farm in Georgia.
“I’ve always thought that’s why you have children on the farm,” Perdue quipped. “To do the work!”
The Secretary said his life was made more meaningful by the many blessings of growing up on a farm knowing he was doing his part feeding a growing, hungry world.
“I’m like you farmers who are here today,” Perdue said. “I voted for Trump, and I want to see how this administration can help the farmer.”
Perdue cited an ancient proverb familiar to farmers back home: “A man who doesn’t have enough to eat has only one problem. A man who has enough to eat has many problems.”
That analogy to a man with many problems was Perdue’s lead-in to a major part of the department’s agenda under his tutelage.
Regulation— “We want to look at every regulation to see if your productivity is being impeded,” Perdue said.
One of the state farm bureau representatives in attendance related that just to get a bottle of olive oil to market there are 19 permitting procedures. Perdue said milk producers face even more regulations and market pricing makes it difficult for the dairies to generate profits.
Perdue also answered several questions from the audience as to the department’s policy regarding trade, labor, and infrastructure.
Trade— The administration is seeking policies to protect U.S. farmers from cheaper foreign products that compete directly, Perdue said. A California dairy association member said the USDA should also level the playing field from state to state for standards and regulations in the
production of organic and whole milk products.
Labor— Several audience members asked for clarification of the administration’s immigration policy. Each cited the importance of protecting farm workers who are indispensable to California agriculture. A workable “guest worker” program should be a priority, said the president of the California Avocado Association.
In Georgia recently, all the farm workers left suddenly because of fears that they might be rounded up during uncertainty of a changing immigration policy, the Secretary said.
“We started a prison furlough program where inmates could replace the departed workers,” Perdue said. “By the end of the second day of farm work, the prisoners were asking us if they could just go back to prison.”
Perdue said the USDA is well aware of the labor needs of farmers and wants to prevent a shortage caused by an incompatible immigration policy.
Infrastructure— Prompted by a question from Wanda Ishida, wife of Allen Ishida, former District 1 county supervisor, Perdue said President Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure improvements program will furnish funding for highway construction in rural areas to help farmers get their products to market. The funds could also be used for water storage projects.
“The program is a match with state and private sources,” Perdue said.
“We think the states are best suited to make the decisions on what projects are needed when and where,” Perdue said.
As a parting shot in the press briefing of Perdue’s visit to World Ag Expo, a reporter asked whose peaches are better: Georgia’s or Fresno County’s?
“South Carolina’s,” Perdue diplomatically replied.
Perdue is the second member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to visit Tulare County. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in April 2017.