“Do right and serve everyone”

by Sally Colby

That’s Sonny Perdue’s motto for the USDA, and he plans to share it with farmers across all 50 states as he discusses the upcoming Farm Bill.

Perdue, the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, grew up on a dairy and row crop farm in Georgia, spent time as a veterinarian in private practice, had a successful career in agribusiness and served as the Governor of Georgia.

During a recent stop at the Reinford Farms in Mifflintown, PA, Perdue first toured the family’s dairy operation and talked with the Reinford family about the challenges of the industry. The family milks 650 cows and farms 1,300 acres, and recently installed a manure digester that provides power for 100 homes as well as the buildings on their own farm.

Perdue has visited more than 30 states to date, and plans to visit all 50 states. “To get out and listen to what it’s really like,” he said, explaining the purpose of his tour. “What’s working, what isn’t working, and how can we do better. Looking at the Farm Bill, which will be here for five years, what do we need to do?”

During his tour, Perdue is rolling out what he refers to as the principles of the Farm Bill. He pointed out that while Congress writes the Farm Bill, they rely on the USDA for data to inform them about constructing it.

“We do that by coming out here and talking with our customers in the field,” said Perdue. “People on dairy farms, row crop farms and production agriculture in many other ways.”

Perdue says the upcoming Bill will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. “We’ve moved away from direct payments and into a risk management system which farmers participate in,” he said. “It’s more palatable to the public and the taxpayer, understanding that farmers are responsible for their own safety net to a large degree through crop insurance.”

In addition to providing guidelines for a safety net, the Farm Bill will help farmers make market-based decisions. Perdue says the best Farm Bill program is one in which farmers can look at the market and let the market tell them what they should be producing. “The worldwide market is huge,” he said. “But let the market tell farmers what they ought to be doing rather than farming for a farm program or government payment. Most farmers I know would much rather have a good crop and receive a good price than a farm program and government check. There’s a lot of disparity across the country about farm subsidies.”

Perdue reviewed the principles of the Bill starting with Farm Production and Conservation. Because compliance with regulations is intertwined with farming operations, Perdue explained that the USDA will be co-locating NRCS and FSA offices to aid farmers in meeting required compliance. “How do we design a safety net that allows people to continue to farm year after year irrespective of the vagaries of the weather?” he said. “There are so many risks farmers face that people have no idea about. You can do the best job in the world planting the seeds and caring for that crop, but we’re all still vulnerable to the things beyond our control, and that’s where the safety net comes into play.”

Farm Production & Conservation programs will continue to be a top priority, ensuring runoff is managed effectively and conservation programs such as CRP and EQIP are used to incentivize best management practices. Also included in the Farm Production & Conservation segment is encouraging entry into farming through increased access to land and capital for young, beginning, veteran and underrepresented farmers.

As he introduced the next aspect of the Bill, Trade & Foreign Agricultural Affairs, Perdue noted that more than 50 percent of agricultural income is derived from trade outside the United States. The Bill includes efforts to improve U.S. market competitiveness by expanding investments, strengthening accountability of export promotion programs, and incentivizing stronger financial partnerships. There’s also emphasis on ensuring the Farm Bill is consistent with U.S. international trade laws and obligations.

The Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, also known as SNAP, is the basis for most of the funding for the Farm Bill. “We have to figure out ways to feed the poorest of our society more productively,” said Perdue. “Helping them learn to transition to an independent lifestyle that would build the economy based on the tax bill. We want to encourage people to get back to the workplace and enable them to become independent of government help. Food stamps were designed as a supplemental program on a temporary basis, and during the last downturn became more of lifestyle for some people. Our goal is to help them move toward an independent lifestyle that rewards them with the dignity that work can provide.” Perdue says the USDA intends to work with Congress to design a program that provides for able-bodied people who need temporary help.

Perdue says Marketing & Regulatory Programs play a major role in keeping the country free from invasive species. He used the example of one of the most recent foreign invaders, the spotted lanternfly, as a top priority under this section of the Farm Bill. “Commodity groups use the marketing access program through checkoff funds to help gain market access across the world,” said Perdue.

The Food Safety & Inspection Services segment of the USDA is responsible for maintaining a safe food supply. Perdue emphasized the need for customers to have confidence in a safe food supply. The USDA supports and enhances FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) to ensure the safety of meat, poultry and egg products, and aims to improve coordination and clarity on execution of food safety responsibilities. This segment will also focus resources on products and processes that pose the greatest risk to public health.

Perdue is committed to the Research, Education & Economics segment of the Farm Bill, and wants a public research agenda that places the United States at the forefront of food and agriculture scientific development. He recalled his visit to Penn State University just prior to his stop at Reinford Farms and emphasized the importance of land grant universities in agricultural research.

The Rural Development segment includes programs that help connect rural American communities, homes, farms, businesses, first responders, educational facilities and healthcare facilities to affordable and reliable high-speed internet services. Perdue is committed to ensuring rural prosperity and helping create a quality of life that attracts and retains the next generation.

Perdue explained that the Natural Resources & Environment portion is primarily focused on the forest service. Perdue wants to reduce regulatory impediments to timely environmental review, sound harvesting, fire management and habitat protection to improve forest health while providing jobs to rural communities.

Finally, the Management portion of the Farm Bill involves making the USDA work for all USDA customers. “I want the USDA to be the most respected, the most efficient, the best managed, most customer-focused agency in federal government,” said Perdue. “I want to interface with you in a new and different way, taking modern technology to bilaterally transfer information from you to us and us to you.”

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