Sonny Perdue, the new USDA Secretary, kicked off his tenure immediately after being sworn in by joining President Trump last week for a “Farmers Roundtable” at the White House to address issues facing the American agriculture community. The roundtable discussion was designed to allow representatives from all corners of agriculture to raise concerns and share ideas.
“President Trump has made it clear that addressing the needs of rural America will be a top priority, and the message that we want to send to the agriculture community is that we are here, we are working hard, and we are on their side,” Perdue says.
One of the members of the Roundtable was Tom Demaline of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, OH. Demaline is Vice Chairman of the Board for AmericanHort, which had been contacted by administration officials who said they had most of the ag industry represented in the roundtable but wanted a seat for specialty agriculture and the greenhouse/nursery industry.
Specifically, they wanted someone who could offer insights into the guestworker program and H-2A,” Demaline says. “We’ve been using it for 18 years, so we definitely fit the bill.”
Demaline says he initially had no idea what to expect.
“It happened pretty quickly,” he says. “We had a planning meeting on Monday and agreed on our priorities. An advisor for agriculture from the White House was with us, and he said President Trump wanted to know more about what was necessary for agriculture to prosper in rural America, and the biggest issues facing us.”
The biggest issue discussed, by far, was labor and the importance of having a guestworker program that provides labor when it is needed and is easier to navigate than the current program. But that wasn’t the only part of the conversation.
• “Regulations have in many cases gone beyond their intent and are causing a burden to business growth and development,” Demaline says. “Whether it’s the environment, our employees, or the end consumer, many regulations tend to go beyond serving the needs of who we are trying to protect. We all want to keep food, workers, and the environment safe, but when does it become ridiculous?”
• “Trade was another big area,” Demaline says. “We are blocked out of certain countries and need access to markets that will allow agriculture to grow.”
• “Rural infrastructure, including broadband internet access for everyone, and better roads to get commodities from the farm to the market, is critical,” he says.
So what happens next?
“Secretary Perdue will be a very busy man after this meeting, and President Trump is asking him to take action in many areas, including labor,” Demaline says. “We offered ourselves and our industry as a resource, especially with immigration and guestworker programs. We need people on Capitol Hill during the legislative process who can tell our story. A lot of opinions are formed in Washington without knowing all the facts. We need to explain how the lack of a strong guest worker program hurts our businesses and prevents us from expanding and growing.”
Demaline emphasized that President Trump and his team were engaged in the process, and asked questions and offered solutions.
“It was a two-way conversation,” Demaline says. “He knows that for America to be strong, we need a strong rural community and a strong farmer.”
The Farmers Roundtable featured more than a dozen farmers and representatives of the agriculture community. Other participants included:
• Lisa Johnson-Billy, farmer and former Oklahoma House member, Lindsay, OK
• Luke Brubaker, Brubaker Farms, Mount Joy, PA
• Hank Choate, Choate’s Belly Acres, Cement City, MI
• Zippy Duval, President of American Farm Bureau Federation and a farmer from Greensboro, GA
• Valerie Early, National FFA Central Region Vice President and former 4-H member, Wykoff, MN
• Lynetta Usher Griner, Usher Land and Timber, Inc., Fanning Springs, FL (also farms in Kansas)
• A.G. Kawamura, Orange County Produce, Newport Beach, CA
• James Lamb, Lamb Farms and Prestage Farms, Clinton, NC
• Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and farmer, Spirit Lake, IA
• Jose Rojas, Vice President of Farm Operations for Hormel, Colorado Springs, CO
• Terry Swanson, Swanson Farms, Walsh, CO
• Maureen Torrey, Torrey Farms, Elba, NY
• Steve Troxler, North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture and farmer, Browns Summit, NC
“The Farmers Roundtable provided the chance for the President to hear directly from the people on the front lines of American agriculture about what they are dealing with every day,” Secretary Perdue says. “By hosting this discussion, the president has demonstrated his awareness of the plight of American farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers, his intention to seek input, and his determination to help.”