Williston Herald: Ag pick appears to win over delegation in confirmation hearings

The state’s U.S. Senate delegation had a laundry list of concerns for former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who was in the nation’s Capitol Thursday for confirmation hearings before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Three of Montana and North Dakota’s senators are members on the committee, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D, Steve Daines, R-Mont. and John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is also chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. is not on the committee, but has been a vocal ag advocate, and did not let that stop him from pressing Perdue as well on topics of importance to the area.

He sent Perdue a letter about Brazilian beef imports — also a topic of conversation during the confirmation hearings — urging him to halt these imports if he is confirmed.

Tester recently introduced legislation in the Senate that would suspend importation of Brazilian meat products for 120 days, providing USDA with more time to determine the extent and depth of issues related to imports from the country, whose inspections practices were recently the subject of an investigative news report that exposed some problems with the country’s processes.

“As a farmer, I know the important role the Ag Department plays in support (of) family farms and ranches,” Tester said after the hearings Thursday. “If confirmed, I hope Governor Perdue listens to Montanans about what we need in next year’s Farm Bill, and works to keep Farm Service Agency offices open, despite the President’s proposed cuts to reduce their funding.”

During the hearing, Heitkamp questioned Perdue about Trump’s recent budget proposal, which would cut the USDA by 21 percent, likely resulting in staff reductions at Farm Service Agencies across the region, as well as potentially reductions in research at the USDA-ARS lab in Sidney, Montana.

“What we are seeing out of the White House and the budget doesn’t seem to be pro-rural or pro-agriculture, so we need you to be an absolutely voracious and active fighter on behalf of rural America in that White House and with other agencies,” Heitkamp said.

Perdue told Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the committee, that he had no input into Trump’s budget blueprint during his testimony. 

To Heitkamp he said, “Ag is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America, just because, as was just said, we know how vital it is. I will absolutely be a tenacious advocate and fighter where necessary to do that.”

Trade was also prominent for all three MonDak senators on the Ag Committee. 

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers are outside the United States,” Daines pointed out, and said he’d been visited in recent days by farmers of various stripes, talking about how tough it is in farm country with commodity prices still hitting new lows. 

“The importance of access to foreign markets for agriculture cannot be overstated,” Daines said. “As secretary, how will you ensure that ag’s voice is heard loud and clear within this administration, to fight for Montana farmers and ranchers?”

Perdue said he planned to be on site as USDA’s chief salesman around the world, to negotiate deals to sell America’s agricultural products around the world. 

“I believe that USDA will be intimately involved in the personal, on the ground — boots on the ground — negotiation at tables around this world with ag ministers and foreign dignitaries, selling our product,” he said.

America has more food than required to meet its own needs, and that can be a great boon to the economy, Perdue added.

“The good news is, we have a growing middle class around the world that’s hungry for those products,” he said. “Food is a noble thing to trade, and as I’ve indicated several times before, we’ve got a great story to tell. We have producers here who can produce more than we need to consume, and that’s not the case in many parts of the world. So why don’t we use that bounty to supply one of the fundamental needs of mankind around the world? I will continue to tirelessly advocate that within our administration and in conjunction with you all.”

Heitkamp has introduced a bipartisan bill with Rep. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas that looks to expand U.S. Agricultural exports to Cuba. 

“North Dakota farmers and ranchers cannot make a living without opportunities to sell their top-notch products overseas,” Heitkamp said later in a media release. “But uncertainty about trade in markets like Mexico has already cost North Dakota valuable business. It’s my hope that if confirmed Governor Perdue can be a strong voice for agricultural exports in the President’s cabinet, and make sure they have a seat at the table.”

Heitkamp added that the proposed 21 percent funding cut shows “little understanding of the vital work USDA does to support farmers, ranchers and rural communities.” 

Both Hoeven and Heitkamp came out with statements saying it is important to confirm Perdue, who they both suggested would be a strong advocate for agriculture and rural America.

Hoeven, meanwhile, pressed Perdue on helping build a North, South, Midwest coalition to pass a new Farm Bill, and maintaining strong crop insurance options including updated Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage. Hoeven has been critical of Trump’s budget proposal for agriculture, bluntly stating in a recent media release that it would not work for agriculture.

The sugar program was also mentioned by both North Dakota senators as a very important low-cost program that they want him to support.

Perdue was more nuanced in his response to that, promising only to “look into it” and to “support the best benefit of that.” He suggested there are issues in the sugar trade to the south that may be unfair to American growers and need some review.

Heitkamp joked that she was looking for a straight “yes” to her question, before making way for the next senator.

Hoeven and Daines both pressed Perdue to visit their states during the hearing, to see the diversity of agriculture here. Daines added that it’d be a good opportunity to scout elk prior to hunting season, and both men laughed. 

“We appreciate Sonny’s commitment to visit North Dakota and see the good work being done by producers and ag researchers in our state,” Hoeven said.