Perdue: Farm economy fragile
BY DEANA STROISCH
During a U.S. House committee hearing last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue described the state of the rural economy as fragile.
“I wish there were better news, but there’s a lot of stress and a lot of duress on the farms today,” he said. “The only saving grace for that is we’re talking about a constituency that’s probably the most resilient among Americans and the most optimistic or they wouldn’t continue to do what they do year in and year out.”
Perdue spoke during a nearly two-hour U.S. House Agriculture Committee hearing. He also submitted seven pages of written testimony.
Perdue noted farmers have reduced spending and tapped savings, loans and off-farm income and assets to stay in business. But after four years, Perdue wrote, resources are running out. Farm debt continues to rise, increasing by 22 percent since 2013 -- up from $315 billion to $385 billion, according to USDA data.
He stressed the need to create a farm bill with a better safety net -- particularly for dairy and cotton producers. He said farmers remain dependent on trade and labor, and said the administration continues to decrease regulatory burdens.
Perdue answered questions on a variety of issues, including:
*d The North American Free Trade Agreement: Asked for an update on negotiations, Perdue compared them to a congressional bill. “It doesn’t ever happen until the end. The good news is I’m more hopeful than I have been. I think probably we see more movement on Mexico’s side than we do Canada. I think frankly we’ll get a better deal from both of them and preserve the benefits for all three countries.” He predicted a new deal this year.
*d Guest worker program: Perdue said he’s hopeful legal ag workforce issues will be discussed and addressed in the upcoming immigration debate. “It’s one of the most critical issues facing American agriculture,” he said.
*d Ag research. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, asked Perdue what Congress could do to improve ag research and make funding go farther. Perdue replied: “Hold me accountable to make sure the research we’re funding through USDA contributes directly to the productivity for the American farmer and rancher and resolving the most difficult issues and problems out there.”
*d Waterway funding. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, asked about funding to improve locks, dams and levees needed to help move grain and biofuels through Illinois. Perdue replied: “I’m hopeful that in the infrastructure bill we’ll see dedicated money for agricultural logistical services including those that you described.”