On July 26, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue gave the opening keynote at United Fresh 2018, discussing his background in this corner of the agriculture sector, as well as plans that he and President Donald Trump’s administration have for USDA.
Here are 5 key points from Perdue’s presentation:
1. As a child, the secretary traded produce for his father.
Perdue’s father, George Ervin Perdue, Jr., was a diversified row crop farmer in Bonaire, Georgia. In addition to raising dairy cattle and growing wheat, corn and beans, the elder Perdue sold produce that the now-secretary traded at the Atlanta Farmers Market. “I have a real childhood affinity for your business, for your occupation, for your industry in that way, and it's gone on to this day,” Perdue told the audience. “I remember very passionately how much my father cared about that.”
2. Changes could be coming to the H-2A visa program.
Stressing the need for a legal workforce, Perdue said he has directed USDA to work with the Department of Labor, Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to streamline the H-2A program. “Remember, [H-2A] was a program that was supposed to be the easy way to get agricultural workers here where we need them, and it just kind of turned out to be anything but,” he said. “It's very cumbersome. You’ve got to navigate multiple state and federal agencies. The rules are so complex that to get someone on your payroll, you have to get a specialized immigration lawyer, a human resource consultant, almost. And small producers — it's very difficult to do, and they just kind of give up.”
3. Tough talk on China extends to agriculture.
In defense of President Trump’s hardline stance on China, Perdue cited a case in 2013 when U.S. officials caught three Chinese nationals attempting to steal corn seed. “We know that cyber theft and forced transfer of technology is there, even in the agricultural sector, and so that's the major issue President Trump and we have with China in this trade dispute is the theft of intellectual property. Most of our farmers understand that. They understand that China has not been fair players.”
4. The U.S. government plans to reorganize government functions.
Last week, President Trump held a Cabinet meeting, in which government executives spoke about the need to streamline government agencies, Perdue said. The secretary paraphrased the following line from Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget: “If you make a cheese pizza, it’s governed by FDA. If you put pepperoni on it, it’s governed by USDA,” he said. “If you have a chicken, that’s governed by USDA. If the chicken lays an egg, that's governed by FDA. But if you break the egg and make an omelet, that's again governed by USDA.”
5. Perdue wants input from the produce industry on how to improve “audit fatigue.”
Growers experience “audit fatigue” when they must redundantly respond to audits, Perdue said, and the produce industry needs to join together to address this issue in both the public and private sectors. “When we deal with produce safety, let's consolidate and get together so we can have compliant, food safety producers out there that can make a difference for our consumers,” he said.
Photo: Patrick Williams