As trade war heats up, Trump's Ag chief attempts to calm farmers

US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is touring farms across the country in an effort to sell farmers on the merits of Trump's trade war, with a focus on farms with local Republican candidates. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (c.) looks at corn with US Republican Rep. John Faso of New York (r.) at the Altobelli family farm in Valatie, N.Y., on August 23, 2018.

Breaking off from a tour of dairy operations on a farm in upstate New York, US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tramps across a muddy path to take a sample of sweet corn from an adjacent field.

With a wide smile, he shucks the ear and takes a bite, then passes it around to others in the crowd before getting back to his mission: selling farmers on the merits of President Trump's trade war.

The grandfather known as “Secretary Sonny” on Instagram and Twitter has racked up thousands of miles, visiting 42 states, on a goodwill tour trying to shore up support among farmers who heavily supported Mr. Trump in 2016 – but now see their livelihood threatened after losing much of the massive Chinese market for staple crops such as soybeans, pork, and sorghum.

A former Georgia governor and veterinarian whose family farmed about 1,000 acres, Mr. Perdue has kept a low profile in volatile Washington but served as a kind of ambassador for Trump across broad swaths of rural America.

While many farmers remain loyal to the president, they have urged him and congressional Republicans to resolve the trade disputes with China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico quickly as commodity prices and exports plummet. Some have worked to maintain relationships with Chinese importers behind the scenes.

Others are downright angry, questioning the protectionist policies and criticizing the administration's recently announced subsidy package for farmers, meant to help soften the blow of retaliatory Chinese tariffs. "Trade not aid" has become a rallying cry.

“The need for trade aid and relief is just a result of this administration’s trade policies," said Pam Johnson, who has been farming corn and soybeans in Iowa for more than four decades.

Trump's critics in farm country also wonder why the $6.1 billion farm aid package announced by Perdue and his deputies on Aug. 27 fell short of the $12 billion promised in July. Perdue says additional payments will be evaluated.

The secretary aims to mollify such critics and rally supporters just as the Republicans face high-stakes midterm elections this fall against Democrats trying to retake control of the US House and Senate. He has appeared at farms with local Republican candidates.

Perdue tells farmers the trade dispute with China – normally the top buyer of US soybeans, the nation's most valuable agricultural export – is a short-term sacrifice needed to gain better long-term trade deals. An Air Force veteran, the 71-year-old agriculture secretary says farmers are patriots who are willing to do their part to ensure that the United States gets a fair deal in global trade – an argument that gets mixed reviews.

"I don't know what patriotism has to do with losing money," said Gary Lynch, who raises hogs in Iowa.

And yet Mr. Lynch said he continues to support Perdue and the administration.

"He knows the business, he knows ag," Lynch said after participating in a roundtable discussion with the secretary in Iowa. "He knows the game."

Farmers in upstate New York seemed reassured by Perdue's easy manner and rural roots, laughing as he spun tales about getting hit in the face with cows' tails during early morning milking.

His political message connected with farmers such as Tony Emmi, a 55-year-old who grows fruits and vegetables on 300 acres in Baldwinsville, New York.

"I know it is sort of hard to take that on the chin, but it is about time these trade balances get leveled out a little bit," said Mr. Emmi, who saw Perdue at a dairy farm in Cortland, New York. "We are just getting taken advantage of way too much."

Some farm industry advocates have long railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has relentlessly targeted. Florida tomato producers contend the deal has allowed Mexico to flood the US with cheap imports, while US dairy farmers have fought against Canadian import tariffs. But most US agriculture groups argue that farmers rely heavily on trade deals – and have grown increasingly fearful about losing market access as the trade war has escalated.

Washington imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of a wide range of Chinese imports on July 6, and Beijing immediately retaliated on an equal amount of goods, focusing on autos and agricultural products. The Trump administration has accused China of targeting farmers in order to punish regions that favored the President in 2016.

Chinese soy importers have since quickly retreated from the US market and aim to drastically cut back on purchases of US soybeans. Some US farmers are starting to worry that US aid won't be enough to get them through a prolonged dispute.

Trump, Perdue reassures, won't allow farmers to be "bullied and pressured and bear the brunt of what we believe to be unfair retaliation against agriculture," Perdue said during a recent farm tour of what he constantly referred to as "the real New York" in a dig at New York City – Trump's hometown.

Anywhere but Washington

Perdue, who famously lead a vigil in 2007 on the steps of the Georgia state Capitol to pray for rain, often travels in a tan-and-brown camper van, deploying his southern charm as the first agriculture secretary from the south since the early Clinton administration.

Jim Hefner, an Ohio farmer who saw Perdue speak in April, said his heavy travel schedule shows that Perdue is invested in farm country.

"He is here, there and everywhere," Mr. Hefner said. "At least he is not staying in Washington."

Perdue is moving his department's economic research service away from the nation's capital to help recruit employees closer to the farm sector. A new location has not been determined.

Although Perdue is a staunch critic of China – frequently mentioning several legal cases of Chinese nationals stealing genetically engineered seeds – he has advocated for free trade policies in the past. He earned points early in the Trump administration with the agriculture community for defending NAFTA even as Trump attacked it.

Trump told Reuters in an April 2017 interview he had previously been "psyched" to terminate NAFTA but had changed his mind.

Several agriculture lobby groups in Washington said at the time that the newly appointed Perdue had dissuaded the president from withdrawing in a one-on-one Oval Office meeting. Perdue was armed with a map that showed the importance of the trade pact to states critical to the president's 2016 electoral victory, the groups said.

Perdue praised Trump's announcement of a newly negotiated deal with Mexico in late August and said it "validates the president's approach to bringing other nations to the negotiating table," in a recent phone call with reporters.

After more than a year of talks, Canada and the United States are still trying to resolve differences over NAFTA.

Scott Glezen, a dairy farmer from Lisle, N.Y., with 1,200 cattle, said that, while he appreciated that Perdue was reaching out to farmers, he worried that producers would be irreparably damaged while they waited for the trade war to end.

"Even if your voice is being heard," he said, "politics is too slow."

This story was reported by Reuters. 

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