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Dozens of farmers lined up to ask a question of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and congressional delegates in Morgan, Minn. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Farmers pack building to talk trade war impact with Sonny Perdue

MORGAN, Minn. — The group bearing the brunt of the impact for the Trump Administration's trade policies got a chance to voice its feelings on Wednesday, Aug. 7, about the ongoing trade war with China.

The U.S. House Agriculture Committee held a listening session to gauge the impact of trade and agriculture policy in farm country and hundreds of farmers, ag industry leaders and others turned out for the session, packing the building at Farmfest.

United States Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a key player in orchestrating President Donald Trump's trade policy moves, fielded questions and comments. And while he seemed to listen and respond with compassion, he struck back at times with defenses of the president's trade negotiations.

“We’re already seeing the short-term pain (in farm country) and that’s why we have the market facilitation program that tries to backfill as much of that pain as possible," Perdue said. "It’s not designed, nor is it intended, nor is it expected to make people whole. And any farmer would rather have a good crop than the price of a government check.”

Perdue's appearance comes days after Trump announced that he would hike tariffs on Chinese products, spurring a call for retaliatory tariffs in China placed on U.S. products. And Beijing announced that it would stop buying American products and later devalued the country's currency, the yuan, to make Chinese products more palatable to foreign markets.

At the listening session, farmers voiced their anxiety and fear about whether they or the next generation on the farm would be able to survive.

"President Trump is trying hard to make his trade deals. But some of the rhetoric, that farmers are starting to do great again, we're not starting to do great. Things are going downhill and downhill very quickly," Brian Thalmann, a fifth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Plato and president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said. "I hope that when some of these trade deals get completed there will be a place for my son and everybody else's son and daughters to still be involved in agriculture."

Addressing the 'elephant in the room'

Early on, the "elephant in the room" emerged. Several farmers stood to ask Perdue about his strategy in negotiating new trade deals with China and when they might be able to expect some relief.

“The taxpayers and we as farmers need our markets back and prices,” Gary Wertish, president of Minnesota Farmers Union, said. “This is causing long-term devastating damage to not only farms but to rural communities."

Farmers' concerns were clear as they stepped up the microphone to ask for answers about the trade and about what could be done to relieve the stress farmers were enduring. As reporters met Perdue with questions, other farmers yelled their questions and told the secretary that the market facilitation program wasn't helping farmers whose land was flooded, preventing planting.

“We’re always concerned about losing farmers but there again, the government can’t support any business and every business,” Perdue said. “Market facilitation is the best we can do to help farmers."

Perdue listened attentively to the dozens of speakers at the listening session, but on the issue of trade, he insisted that the Trump administration was working in farmers' (and all Americans') best interest to strike a fair trade deal.

“We probably, as an industry, became too dependent on one major customer,” Perdue said, citing the nearly 60% of American soybeans that had been sold to Chinese markets. “My goal would be to have China play fair. ...They need to change their ways and change their culture instead of trying to build their economy on the backs of cheating.”

There were some thank yous for the committee members and to Perdue for their work in passing the Farm Bill. And at one point the secretary broke up the tension with a joke, “What do you call two farmers in a basement?" he asked the crowd. "A whine cellar."

The joke got a laugh in the building full of farmers, though some groaned.

Answering a pressing question for many farmers, Perdue told farmers that it wasn't immediately clear when the trade war would end. “It needs to end when it’s resolved,” Perdue said.

Following the session, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, encouraged support of another trade deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which would replace much of the policy that was in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and patience for a fair deal.

"We need markets more than we need payments and in the long run," Duvall said following the listening session. "That's what this president is trying to do."

A push for the passage of USMCA

Members of the panel and farmers in the audience said the state should push forward with the ratification of the USMCA to re-open critical markets.

Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber, both Republicans, said they wanted to see quick passage of the trade deal set to replace NAFTA as did Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson, a Democrat.

"I was one of the first people that came out in favor of that," Peterson told the audience, noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump have locked up on the issue after the two traded public barbs on separate political issues.

Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat that represents Minnesota's Second District, said she still had reservations about the proposal.

"I want to get to yes," Craig said. "It's frankly enraging to me that we've allowed brand name pharma to get into a trade agreement when they weren't there before and risk the idea that prescription prices are going to go up in this country even more."

If ratified by Congress, the USMCA would also have to be approved by Canada. Mexico has already ratified the proposal.