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SPOKANE — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says he’s pushing for government help for farmers hurt by the spreading trade war between the U.S. and other countries.
“The president says he won’t allow ag producers to bear the brunt of trade disputes. We are undergoing significant trade disruptions on corn and soybeans. I believe if we are not able to resolve this — I’m laying down a marker that we need to resolve it by Labor Day or we need some sort of mitigation,” Perdue told agricultural and timber leaders hosted by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., for breakfast at the Spokane Club on Monday.
Perdue said any government help might be retroactive so cherries and other commodities that suffer losses before Labor Day would be covered.
Potential market losses due to the trade war was the chief topic of discussion at the breakfast attended by Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, who told Perdue that Washington has an $11 billion annual farmgate value with 37 percent of “what we grow” shipped overseas.
“You will hear a lot about trade from every person because so much of our product is exported,” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.
“Our farmers grow wheat. Ninety percent of it is exported. Some of these relationships have been built over 60 years. Markets take a long time to develop, but they can be lost quickly because there are a lot of suppliers out there,” Squires said.
Canada and Australia are only too happy to take over Washington’s big wheat market in Japan, he said.
Squires said he’s concerned about the U.S. dropping out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and asked Perdue what, if any, bilateral agreements the administration is working on.
Perdue said he hasn’t given up on TPP, that the president has said he may look at TPP again but prefers bilateral agreements. Perdue said work is underway on bilateral deals with Japan and India, and that India has been difficult in a lot of ways.
Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, and Matt Harris, assistant executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, also voiced concerns about trade.
Perdue said he knows there’s a lot of anxiety that Canada, Mexico and China are the three top trading partners and that all are engaged in U.S. trade disputes.
“I think the president rightly called out China for its bad acts and thefts of intellectual property, even agricultural products like reverse engineering genetics in corn seed,” he said. “Most farmers applaud him for that.”
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has told him, he said, that Mexico should fall quickly into place on North American Free Trade Agreement revisions as soon as that nation’s election is over. Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won the election over the weekend.
“Both Mexico and the U.S. understand the relationship needs to work out. We’ve benefited from NAFTA and Mexico certainly has,” Perdue said. “I hope we can get Mexico done quickly and then Canada will follow. Public comments are not always what happens in private.”
McMorris Rodgers said she’s joined Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., in asking for a doubling of federal Market Access Program funding to aid export promotions.
She also said House leadership will keep its commitment to Newhouse and others to bring up a standalone ag labor bill for a vote before the August recess. It will address E-verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), transitioning illegals in the domestic workforce and a more workable guestworker program, she said.
Chris Voigt, executive director of the state Potato Commission, said an Obama administration rule required two under-served vegetables, such as kale and spinach, be served before potatoes could be served in the USDA school breakfast program. Schools stopped serving vegetables but there’s legislation pending to encourage USDA to change the rule, Voigt said.
“I don’t need any encouragement to do that. This is the first I’ve heard of that. We will check on that and get that kind of silliness out of our regulations,” Perdue replied.
State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville and a wheat farmer, said Conservation Reserve Program priorities need more consistency and greater flexibility for grazing. The program requires sagebrush be preserved one year and torn out the next, he said. Perdue replied environmental restrictions from other agencies may come into play.
Duane Vaagen, owner of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, spoke about a proposal for a private program to thin national forests. Mark Benson, vice president of PotlachDeltic Corp., one of the nation’s largest lumber producers, thanked Perdue for Trump administration regulatory relief and said he’s happy the Timber Investment Act is in the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill.