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John Wilkes: US anxiety over trading relationships

US Secretary of Agriculture (USDA) Sonny Perdue visited 33 states during his first nine months in office.

He wanted to hear first-hand grievances and fears of American farmers. These conversations help shape USDA policy.

 

At the 2018 annual USDA Outlook Forum, Mr Perdue said: “Without exception, US farmers had three concerns: regulation; trade; and adequate supply of labour.”

 

Mr Perdue noted President Donald Trump had lived up to his election promise of deregulation by eliminating unproductive rules consistent with USDA views about agricultural sustainability, whether it be ‘environmental, ecological or economical’.

 

Mr Perdue said: “He [Mr Trump] has gone on an offensive to exterminate this vermin of over-regulation.”

 

USDA has 28 deregulatory actions planned for 2018 which should generate savings of $60 million (£44m).


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Mr Perdue stressed the importance of trade for rural America and voiced some anxiety about US global trade relationships.

 

He said: “We know 20 cents of every farm dollar rely on the product going off our shores. We are nervous about the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA].”

 

Worry that Mr Trump will tamper with US agriculture’s very agreeable trade arrangements with Canada and Mexico was a common theme at the forum. Mr Perdue refuted Mr Trump’s myopic focus on US trade deficits under NAFTA.

 

He said: “What the President does not appreciate is US agriculture was in trade surplus to the tune of $16.6 billion in 2016 and $21.3bn in 2017.”

 

Mr Perdue remains optimistic for 2018 US exports.

 

The Economic Research Service projects sales of $140bn (£102bn), matching 2017 levels, despite lower commodity prices.

 

Mr Perdue was less bullish on net farm income, because it has fallen every year since 2014. Estimated projection for 2018 is a 6.7 per cent decline from 2017; the lowest since 2009.

 

In his speech, Mr Perdue shed positive light on trade with the UK.

 

He said: “The UK as we know is separating from the EU soon and we believe it will be looking for trading partners. We want to take advantage of the very long-standing relationship with the UK.”

 

It is apparent the need for readily available agricultural labour has USDA at odds with the Trump administration over immigration.

 

Mr Perdue added: “Agriculture is caught in the crossfire of the immigration debate.”

 

He viewed immigrant labour as a vital resource, an integral component of a ‘legal, reliable and dependable work force’.

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