On a sunny Sunday in Modesto, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue came to town to hear about what keeps California farmers up at night. Trade, regulations and immigration led the list.
Perdue appeared at a town hall-style meeting hosted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.
During a question-and-answer session, dairy farmer Rien Doornenbal of Escalon told Perdue he’s worried about the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement—a deal President Donald Trump campaigned against and has threatened to abandon.
“Before NAFTA, there was virtually no dairy products exported out of the United States,” Doornenbal said. “Now, 23 years after NAFTA started, we’re sending about 15 percent of our total dairy production out of the country. Mexico is our No. 1 customer.”
In answering Doornenbal’s concerns, Perdue said, “I want to make sure you understand we’re making that point every week at trade meetings at the White House, and they know how important it is.”
Perdue said he believes a deal will be done in the end.
In describing his concern about regulations, walnut grower Joe Ferrari of Linden told Perdue he doesn’t want to go to jail for doing his job. He’s worried about the havoc the Food Safety Modernization Act could cause for him and his business.
“One of the big concerns I have deals with the way this is being enforced,” Ferrari said. “Basically, the first time you mess up and you don’t comply with the regulation, it’s a misdemeanor; second time, it’s a Class E felony.
“I don’t want to have farming criminalized any longer,” he said.
Dan Sutton, who grows leafy greens in San Luis Obispo County, said the Food and Drug Administration—the agency assigned by Congress to oversee FSMA—isn’t doing enough to educate people.
“I think we have a right to understand what their intent is, what they’re looking for, what they intend to do when they come out to our operations,” Sutton said. “It’s that unknown that really scares a lot of us.
“I am now personally liable for our operation’s product,” he said. “My kids are 8, 6 and 4. I don’t want to face a felony charge for something that I feel I’m doing 100 percent correctly.”
Perdue expressed sympathy with those concerns, and said his agency would work with the FDA.
“Unless we can get (the law’s problems) corrected and work together in that, I don’t know if Congress will have the courage to back up on this at all,” Perdue said. “We may have to try to do it simply by common sense with the regulations.”
CFBF President Paul Wenger, who moderated the question-and-answer session, described regulatory reform as a top Farm Bureau priority.
“We’ve heard that maybe in the farm bill, rather than just having more dollars available for producers through certain programs, they’re looking at regulatory reform being part of the bill—actually expedite things so that people don’t have these added costs,” Wenger said, adding that regulatory reform might reduce the need for other USDA programs that help farmers comply with regulations that it and other agencies oversee.
Wenger noted that Perdue mentioned a proposed H-2C visa program, contained in a congressional bill, that would replace the existing H-2A agricultural immigration program. Perdue praised recent passage of the H-2C bill by the House Judiciary Committee, but Wenger said CFBF cannot support it in its current form.
“It’s not going to work for us,” Wenger said. “Hopefully, I got that message clear in my comments to him. We need a more comprehensive guestworker program that will allow for portability from farm to farm, commodity to commodity, state to state.”
As written, the law caps the number of H-2C visas at 450,000 and ties visa holders to one employer for the length of their stay.
Water, of course, is always a top issue in California. Joey Airoso, a dairy farmer from Pixley, brought up the state’s recently ended drought in addressing Perdue.
“I don’t think the state by itself is going to fix it,” Airoso told Perdue. “We are going to need your help in protecting the water supply here.”
Afterward, Airoso said he was impressed by the meeting with the secretary.
“I think he’s a pretty genuine person, and I think it certainly was important for him to pay a visit to the No. 1 ag state in the United States,” Airoso said.
As to water, Airoso said, “The role that California plays in agriculture and producing food for our country and around the world—it certainly is important for the secretary of ag of the United States of America to have a close eye on the water supply here in California, and the ability for agriculture to maintain a portion of that water to grow food.”
Perdue had hoped to visit California during the summer, but Hurricane Harvey diverted his attention to Houston instead.
“I’d love to come back and get a full-fledged tour,” Perdue told the crowd.
Following the Modesto town hall meeting, Perdue visited with a young farmer in Madera County and toured the Grimmway Farm carrot operation in Kern County.
Wenger was happy Perdue was able to make it to California.
“I think he heard farmers very well here,” Wenger said. “He’s at ease with farmers. He’s a farmer, a veterinarian—he feels very comfortable being with farmers and talking a farmer’s language.”
Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, said he believes American farmers stand on common ground.
“You’ve got a perception of Georgia, Georgians have a perception of California, but the great thing, when you come around to ag people, there’s a lot of commonality and a lot of common thinking about what we do and why we do it,” Perdue said. “That’s one of the things I love about this job.”
Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.