USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue toured California farms in early November. He took time to meet with growers in various cities, including a stop in Modesto with about 150 in attendance.

USDA Secretary gets earful from California farmers

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue met with agricultural leaders during a tour of California farming operations

During a recent trip to California, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue assured farmers to expect a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that should work for Golden State growers.

Farmers appear worried that the Trump Administration will withdraw the United States from the agreement that they believe has opened trade with Canada and Mexico.

Dairy producers, in an audience of about 150 recently gathered in Modesto recently, told Perdue that without NAFTA they might as well close shop as Mexico is a large market for U.S. dairy products.

A dairyman from Escalon told Secretary Perdue that low California milk prices don;t worry him the most. Instead its the likelihood that the U.S. could withdraw from NAFTA.

“Before NAFTA there were virtually no dairy products exported from the U.S.,” the dairyman told the secretary. “Now about 15 percent of our production is sent out of country with Mexico our No. 1 customer."

“If we lose NAFTA, my dairy employee problems will be gone since I won’t have cows left for them to milk,” he shared.

Secretary Perdue said the U.S. is trying to move dairy exports into Canada, but is continually blocked by its closed-market system.

“I think we’re going to get a NAFTA deal in the end,” Perdue told farmers at at the meeting held on the Modesto Junior College campus.

Almond grower and processor Dave Phippen echoed the need for free trade agreements. He said over 70 percent of California’s almond crop is exported each year.

“These trade agreements are vital to our industry,” Phippen said.

He also asked Perdue to help the tree nut industry get additional market promotion funding through the farm bill to help farmers access additional export opportunities.

Alyssa Houtby, director of government affairs at California Citrus Mutual, said the organization was represented by CCM Board Vice-Chairman Matt Fisher in a meeting with the Secretary in Bakersfield. He shared concerns about continued citrus trade with Korea and the need for a U.S. guest worker program.

“Korea is a big market for us,” according to Houtby. “Keeping trade open there is vitally important.”

A Monterey vegetable grower wanted to know President Trump's view on immigration and agriculture. Secretary Perdue said Trump has assured farmers he hopes to get a guest worker program through Congress.

Water and the over-reaching regulatory enforcement also commanded attention at the Modesto meeting. Duarte Nursery President John Duarte did not mix words when telling Perdue that the GOP-controlled administration and Congress now “owns” the regulatory over-reach that led to a multi-million dollar settlement Duarte was forced to accept after being sued several years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers for plowing wheat fields in Tehama County.

Duarte told Secretary Perdue that he fears his settlement could become precedent setting by government agencies eager to “shake down farmers like the Sheriff of Nottingham” for money to fund programs they otherwise can’t get through the normal appropriations process.

“This case was owned and prosecuted under the current administration,” Duarte said. “I hope the President understands what a black eye this is to so many of us who hoped that the abuse we’d seen under the Obama Administration would end last November.”

Duarte continued: “We tried to go to court. We stood up as long as we could, but at the end of the day they assessed $45 million in damages against us.”

Duarte said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could have stopped the entire process.

Growers also shared their concerns about regulatory over each over irrigation water.

A farmer whose grandfather was on the first board of directors for the Oakdale Irrigation District told the Secretary that he fears state regulators could “conceivably end the Oakdale Irrigation District in my lifetime” through their efforts to take away pre-1913 water rights the district holds.

The federal Food Safety Modernization Act and its hard-to-understand implementation was discussed by agricultural processors in the poultry, walnut, and livestock feed industries.

The Secretary made other stops in California, including a stop at Bakersfield at Grimmway Farms, the world’s largest carrot producer.

Aubrey Bettencourt, Perdue’s new appointment to lead the state Farm Service Agency, was recognized at the meeting, just named to the post the Secretary's California trip.

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