LOS BANOS – Setting foot into the Germino Building at the fairgrounds, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he was seeking the “heartbeat of farmers” as he worked to develop farm policy.
With some initial fanfare and more than an earful from farmers who travelled from all points in the San Joaquin Valley, Perdue had much to take to heart.
The former Georgia governor didn’t come alone. In tow, were four members of the California House Delegation, Reps. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), Josh Harder (D-Turlock), TJ Cox (D-Fresno), and Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale).
Host Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) set the stage and focused the conversation for the half-hour town hall to four major topics: water, trade, immigration, and infrastructure.
Trade and California agriculture’s ability to remain competitive globally would come to dominate the discussion, with good reason.
At the outset of the town hall, Perdue addressed a question related to the strength of the dollar, foreign currency manipulation, and its effect on exporting agricultural goods.
“The President is really involved on this and understands that a strong dollar, while it’s maybe good for our purchase power internationally, is not good for the sector that exports things,” Perdue said.
He argued there needed to be a balance struck between a strong dollar and competitiveness in foreign markets with American products.
The current trade climate was at the top of mind for many of the 200 farmers in the audience. Blue Diamond Growers board member Kent Stenderup got the ball rolling.
“The President said he would take care of us and help us. we supported the president and his motives,” Stenderup said. “But it’s worse than it was a year ago.”
Stenderup noted that 67 percent of his crop was exported with three major markets in play – China, Turkey, and India.
“We were all hopeful we’d get a re-established free and fair trade relationship with China and other countries,” Perdue said.
Perdue said China reneged on some of the trade commitments it initially made, noting that they would have been “wonderful for agriculture.”
While trade battles are on-going, Perdue remarked that the deals sought by President Donald Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer would establish a level playing field.
Comparing it to the now-concluded College World Series, Perdue said Trump wanted both sides of the trade equation to play with the same number in the line-up and the same strike zone.
Despite constant bristling with China, almost all of Washington’s current focus remains on the ratification of the replacement for NAFTA – known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (or USMCA).
On Friday, the Ag Secretary noted that there was considerable hope for farmers with USMCA, arguing it is “better chapter by chapter, line by line, than NAFTA 1.0.”
He was considerably straightforward about the stakes of the North American deal and the need for Congress to act.
“The Speaker has a prerogative to getting USMCA passed,” he said.
Before departing, the final question raised to the four Congressman flanking Perdue was whether they supported USMCA. Costa, Cox, Harder, and LaMalfa all voiced their support for the new North American trade deal.
“We gotta make this happen,” Costa said.
However, the collective concern from the Congressmen wasn’t about the content of the agreement, but the ability for USMCA to actually receive a vote in the House.
“The question is whether or not it is going to be brought to a vote,” Harder said.
Harder noted that a number of other issues, such as environmental protections and biologic drugs, are clouding the USMCA discussion and silencing the considerable benefits for California farmers.
“Agriculture is not the priority and I find it frustrating. The voice of Ag needs to be heard.”
LaMalfa noted that there was broad support among Members of Congress for USMCA.
“The support is there among rank-and-file,” he said. “About 90 percent of Republicans would vote for it and at least 55 percent of the Democrats would vote for it.”
Cox said the vote made sense for his own constituents.
“I can go straight to the people in my district, the dairymen, and see their support [for USMCA],” Cox said. “They’re going to be able to export more, they’re going to be able to hire more.”
The pact will only go into effect when approved by all three signatory nations. Mexico approved USMCA last week. Canada is expected to approve the deal soon.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has indicated little hurry in bringing the agreement to the House floor for a vote. During a Thursday press briefing, she said she wanted to make “surgical” changes to the deal, greatly delaying its possible implementation.
While USMCA’s immediate future remains up for negotiation between the Trump administration and Pelosi, the message from farmers to Perdue and their Congressmen was simple.
Tomorrow ought to be better than today.