Agriculture and the Trump Administration

The rice industry faces challenges ahead, but Ag Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue brings a Southern-oriented Farm Bill background.

Betsy WardBy Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

The Trump candidacy may well have changed campaigning forever. And the Trump Administration is, as promised, turning Washington on its head. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “the swamp” has actually been drained, but I would say many of the usual power players are not central to the Trump decision-making machine. And prognosticators are at a loss (or just swinging wildly.)

USA Rice, like I think most of agriculture, felt very uneasy during the transition when there was a parade of nominees for every agency and sub-agency except for the Department of Agriculture.

When President Trump finally named former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as his nominee, we breathed a sigh of relief. In him we see someone with a deep understanding of commodity crops, and once confirmed, he will be one of only three U.S. secretaries of agriculture who has worked in agriculture as an adult. That’s an important fact.

Also important is that Perdue has a strong history of supporting trade, especially for agriculture. That’s comforting since much of the rhetoric coming out of the White House has angered important trading partners. But let’s be serious—for rice, they’re all important. Half our annual crop is exported, so few commodities depend on trade like we do.

It will be interesting to see how and if Secretary Perdue can temper the White House. We need him to.

Work cut out for us

Sonny Perdue

Ag Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue—photo courtesy Wikipedia

We also need him to help focus the president’s attention on the coming Farm Bill. As a wealthy real estate developer who grew up in New York City, I’m guessing the president is not as familiar with ag as he is with some other aspects of our economy.

As a grower said to me last month, “How many farms can you see from the top of Trump Tower?”

The answer is none—even on a clear day.

But the president needs to heed the fact that overwhelmingly rural America just hired him. He won 76 percent of the counties with a Cracker Barrel in them, while only taking 22 percent of the counties with a Whole Foods in them.

We’re going to have our work cut out for us to not only educate the president on the value of ag trade—billions of dollars and millions of rural jobs and economies—but also on the unique challenges we face.

The regulatory and policy framework the president and his ag team establish can either ensure we flourish as a sector, including featuring science-based regulations and support for agriculture research and innovation, or can set us on a course of rising consumer prices and more food imports.

And that comes, frankly, with weaker environmental and sustainability safeguards, because nobody does it like we do.

It’s equally important we have a strong safety net program, and as we all know, what works for many commodities doesn’t work for rice. As a southerner, Perdue knows that, and he also knows the policies put in place for rice in the last Farm Bill work well and need to be kept in place.

With weak prices at home and the possibility of our overseas markets being impacted by trade policies designed more to help manufacturing at the expense of agriculture, we need those sound policies now more than ever.

Agriculture got off to a slow and bumpy start in the Trump Administration, but it’s not too late to smooth things out. The experienced hand and keen vision of Perdue should help us get there.