BOWMAN -- U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says he will take the concerns of local farmers and agribusiness leaders back to be heard in Washington.
Trade, the 2018 farm bill, crop and disaster insurance, agricultural water usage, forestry growth and the food stamp program were among the issues Perdue addressed Aug. 21 during a South Carolina Farmer Listening Forum. The forum was held at the home of South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers.
"I am here to learn," Perdue told about 200 farmers and other agricultural officials. "I am trying to get out here in the real world talking to real farmers, real producers about how we at the USDA can serve you. Most of the time, serving means just don't hurt us too bad with the federal government.
"I am one of those that don't believe all the wisdom exists in the world inside Washington, D.C.," Perdue said. "I want to say your voice is powerful as a whole, particularly as growers and producers. Speak up, speak often, speak loud to not only your local members of Congress but also to the USDA as whole."
A former Georgia governor, Perdue is the country's 31st secretary of agriculture.
South Carolina is one of 25 states the secretary plans to visit before Labor Day.
"We have a great messenger," Weathers said. "He has challenged us to give input and challenged young farmers to provide some input so the changes that come about, you can't just push it off to the fact that we did not have an opportunity."
Perdue answered a number of questions related to issues facing farmers today.
- North American Free Trade Agreement: "For most sectors, NAFTA has been good for agriculture," Perdue said. "Regarding Mexico, we don't have a lot of things we can ask for. We have a very high market share with Mexico in the products we send down there. We don't have a lot of room for improvement."
While President Donald Trump wanted to get rid of U.S. involvement in NAFTA, Perdue said that through the efforts of agricultural leaders, the president has come to realize "do no harm to agriculture" through changes.
"We want agriculture to be treated fairly and stand on its own," Perdue said. "The good news is we do it better than anywhere in the world."
- 2018 farm bill and crop insurance: Perdue said the 2014 farm bill progressed in ensuring safety nets for farmers and the 2018 farm bill will continue to do the same.
"There have been some things we can tweak around some planting dates to make it more workable," Perdue said, noting he is looking for the bill to address insurance needs based on regions of the country.
"Crop insurance will be the bedrock of the risk-management program," he said, noting the main concern among many is the crop insurance program in the bill is a "true safety net and not a promise of profitability."
"We are moving away from direct payments," he said. "The American public will tolerate and support and pay for I think a safety net because they recognize that food production is a national security issue."
- Forestry management: Forestry Association of South Carolina President Cam Crawford asked Perdue about his stance on the Timber Innovation Act to advance wood-building construction.
"I am market-based in many things," Perdue said. "I don't like ... legislation where we are telling if you build this, you have to use this or that. I think the lumber industry has enough benefit there to sell the benefit of the product."
Perdue said the country's timber market is untapped.
"Our goal is to get these millions and millions of acres of U.S. forest working again," he said. "We are not cutting timber like we should."
- Food stamp program: State Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, asked Perdue if the food stamp program would be a part of the 2018 farm bill or a separate piece of legislation.
"I think most people would acknowledge that the coalition that comes together to pass this farm bill is necessary to contain that and keep them combined," Perdue said. "I don't think there will be a serious effort to bifurcate those bills this year."
Perdue said there will be attempts to make sure the program gets back to its original intent as a temporary supplemental nutrition program for people who have lost jobs.
"It was never meant to be a lifestyle," he said.
- Disaster insurance: "I think they are dead," Perdue said of the future of disaster insurance. Farmers the last two years have suffered through a historic flood and hurricane during harvest time. "I think Congress has gotten really saddle sour over the supporting appropriations all over the country every year."
He foresees a more regionalized approach to disaster assistance.
Following his visit with farmers and agribusiness leaders in Bowman, Perdue traveled to Charleston to tour the U.S. Vegetable Lab and then had a chance to take in the solar eclipse at McClellanville with Cape Romain Environmental Charter School students and professors from the College of Charleston.