Wherever U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue travels across the country, he said farmers want to know the latest about trade uncertainty, labor and the status of the 2018 Farm Bill.
Tuesday’s stop among the rolling wheat fields of Eastern Oregon was no different.
Perdue, USDA Secretary under President Donald Trump, arrived at Martin Farms in Rufus as part of his “Back to our Roots” tour featuring stops around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Flanked by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the duo took a brief tour of the farm before arriving back in the shop, where about 50 local farmers and county officials awaited for a meet-and-greet that quickly became an impromptu town hall.
After shaking hands and posing for photographs, Perdue focused his comments first on the administration’s looming trade war with China. Starting Friday, the U.S. is set to impose a 25 percent tariff on roughly $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. In turn, China has pledged retaliatory tariffs on 545 American products — especially targeting agriculture.
As one farmer pointed out, cash bids for hard red winter wheat have dropped from around $7 per bushel to $6 per bushel amid the turmoil. Between 85-90 percent of Oregon wheat is exported overseas.
“I’m well aware of what percentage of crop here in the Northwest goes overseas,” Perdue said. “We are mindful of that, not only in your wheat crop but in your specialty crops.”
Perdue added that U.S. soybeans have taken a 20 percent hit over the last few weeks. Other farm imports subject to increased Chinese tariffs include everything from fresh fruit to beef and pork.
Perdue said the USDA is working on “some sort of compensatory mitigation strategy” for farmers, but did not offer specifics.
“(Trump) knows that you all are great patriots. He knows that you stand behind him when he calls out China for cheating for years,” Perdue said. “But he also knows the bank is going to need more than patriotism to pay the bills.”
Perdue said he is more optimistic about passing a new Farm Bill before the current package expires Oct. 1. Both the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the bill, and though there are differences between the two, Perdue said he believes they can be resolved.
Sherman County farmers also spoke up for changes in regulations they would like to see, including provisions in the National Organic Program requiring organic farmers to comply with all state and local weed ordinances.
That request stems from an incident last year between Azure Farms, a 2,000-acre organic operation near Moro and neighboring wheat farms. Growers had complained for years about weeds blowing into their fields from Azure Farms, prompting the county to intervene.
Alan von Borstel, a wheat farmer near Grass Valley and vice president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, asked Perdue about the USDA Transition Incentives Program, which is designed to help new farmers get started while also taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, and putting it back into production.
The program works by paying retiring farmers or ranchers two more years on their CRP contracts, on the condition they sell or rent the land to a beginning grower — someone who has not been a farm or ranch operator for more than 10 years.
However, the transition cannot be made between direct family members, such as father to son, which von Borstel criticized as being discriminatory.
“They want these guys to succeed, yet they build this kind of wall between family members,” von Borstel said.
Logan Padget, a neighboring Grass Valley wheat farmer and member of the Oregon Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers committee, said he got his start in farming thanks to the Transition Incentives Program, taking on a neighbor’s former CRP ground.
The program is a valuable risk management tool, Padget said, especially since it takes two years for a grower to harvest that first wheat crop in a dryland fallow rotation.
“I’d like to see that same opportunity if it arose with my own family,” Padget said.
For his part, Perdue said he is not convinced the program’s rules are discriminatory, but would be open to further discussions.
Jenny Freeborn, whose family farms in the mid-Willamette Valley, said she would like to see more of a safety net to accommodate Oregon’s diverse specialty crops.
“How you do that, I don’t know,” said Freeborn, chairwoman of the Oregon Young Farmers & Ranchers. “But I do know, as a member of a family farm, I’ve barely followed the Farm Bill at times because it’s not going to have an impact on our farm.”
Perdue said it is his job to make sure these ideas and concerns are heard back in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not (Henry) Kissinger, but I want to be an unapologetic advocate for American agriculture, farmers and ranchers to the president’s administration,” he said.
Later on Tuesday, Perdue visited the site of the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge with Walden, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and local officials. His tour wraps up Thursday in Alaska with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.