Billings Gazette: Montana farm groups optimistic about agriculture secretary nominee

Montana farm and ranch groups know little about President Donald Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary but are being assured former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is a good hire.

Perdue, a Republican, was tapped Jan. 19 as the nominees Trump first floated in December were finishing Senate confirmation hearings. He has set to begin one-on-one visits next week with members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which includes U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

“I look forward to meeting with Gov. Perdue to ensure our farmers and ranchers have an open line with the top of the ag department,” Daines said Monday. 

Daines said he would talk to Perdue about opening foreign markets to Montana agriculture products, particularly wheat and beef exports to China. The senator also identified expanding broadband service in rural areas and making protecting Montana ingredients from discrimination in food labeling as other issues to be raised. 

USDA includes the Forest Service, which Daines said needs to renew active management of U.S. forests, a goal most commonly associated with increased logging on federal lands in Montana.

The leadership transition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes as lawmakers begin crafting a new five-year farm bill, which will determine federal policy for everything from crop insurance and forest management to food stamps and the Conservation Reserve Program, America’s largest wildlife habitat and water protection effort. The last farm bill, passed in 2014, weighed in at $500 billion.

“I don’t have much of an opinion, except I’m glad we have a nominee,” said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers.

The USDA has the staff and expertise for lawmakers to draw on while crafting a new farm bill. In the last two months, as farm organizations from around the state have met for winter meetings, the question about who would be agriculture secretary has gone unanswered.

Last week in Billings, Montana’s sugar beet and barley farmers were hopeful they would hear Trump announce his USDA pick. Trump was holding his first press conference in several months and American Sugar Beets Association lobbyist Luther Markwart had one eye on the Montana meeting and the other on the Trump press conference.

Markwart settled on describing how Trump’s pick for commerce secretary and trade representative might influence agriculture policy. Sugar producers depend on the United States buying up sugar when foreign imports drive down prices. The practice assures sugar producers receive a minimum amount. The program is seldom used, but has been recently as sugar from Mexico flooded U.S. markets.

Support for the sugar program by the agriculture secretary is a must for Montana sugar beet farmers, whose industry contributes about $100 million a year to the state’s economy, primarily around Billings and Sidney where sugar is made from beets.

John Youngberg, of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, said his members haven’t heard much about Perdue, but the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation is a Georgian who says the nominee will do well.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation is excited and we can only follow their lead,” Youngberg said.

The Montana Farmers Union is focused on the next farm bill, as well, said Alan Merrill, MFU president.

“We ask that the USDA work to strengthen rural America while supporting family farms — which is consistent with our organization’s mission for over 100 years,” Merrill said.