ELK MOUND — To gather opinions on the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill and how to increase rural prosperity, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has embarked on a five-state RV journey he calls the “Back to Our Roots” listening tour. On Friday, that tour swung by Jim Holte’s farm in Elk Mound.
Waiting for the secretary’s RV to arrive at his southern Dunn County farm on Friday, Holte, who is Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s president, said that foremost on mind was how dairy, trade and immigration will be dealt with in the new Farm Bill.
“I think it’s fitting to talk about these issues on a farm,” Holte said. “It tells me something about the secretary that he wants to meet the people that are impacted directly by these programs and policies.”
The event was attended by area Farm Bureau members and other farm-related producers. Emerging from the RV with Perdue were Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau).
Introducing Perdue before a brat-and-burger lunch, Holte noted, “As a former governor of Georgia, Sonny has a close relationship with the staff of Farm Bureau...4-H and FFA. He is truly a member of the agriculture community.”
Holte listed a few of the diverse agricultural products in which Wisconsin ranks first in the nation including cheese, cranberries, ginseng, milk, mink pelts and, of course, dairy.
He reminded Perdue: “We made international news when (Wisconsin) dairy farmers were left without processors (after a decision by the Canadian dairy industry on ultrafiltered milk). It was a scary time of uncertainly for our state’s dairy farmers, and it weighed heavily on them. This shows the importance of trade and the relationship we have with other countries. So dairy and trade, specifically NAFTA, are very big concerns for all of us in Wisconsin as well as immigration, in the 2018 Farm Bill.”
Before getting into the lunch line, Perdue told the invited guests, “What you say is important. I don’t want you to think that we’re here to talk; we’re here to listen.”
However, the 45-minute listening session was closed to non-invited members of the public and the media. But Perdue did field questions from reporters after the session was done.
“We’re coming back to our roots because the people in that barn today are the roots of American society... the great farmers and producers,” he said. “That’s the heartbeat of how this country started — great innovators, great risk takers, great American spirit in there.”
About the issues that were discussed, Perdue said, “We need more trade. The good news is we’re so blessed as a nation. We can produce more than we can consume. That means we need to sell it all over the world and that’s what we’re doing.”
He acknowledged the difficulties Wisconsin farmers face when it comes to finding workers.
“There’s a need for farm labor and a farm labor program for immigrant guest workers where we can make sure our cows get milked and our crops get harvested and do that on an ongoing basis,” Perdue said.
The regulations surrounding agriculture, he added, have proved burdensome as well: “Senator Johnson and Congressman Duffy know that we’ve been in an extreme, frustrating, over-regulatory environment for the past eight years. We want to unwind that. In Washington, you don’t unwind things easily. There’s a process to go through, peeling back like an onion and getting to where farmers can farm again.”
Asked how actively involved he and his department will be in the upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement talks, Perdue said, “We’re going to be in the right ear of our U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer...He’s going to look to us for consultation when it comes to ag. He has a whole portfolio of trade, but when it comes to ag, he knows the USDA are experts.”
To provide further reassurance, Perdue added, “Every time we break up a Cabinet meeting or small trade meeting, they say, ‘We not going to hurt the farmers.’...We’re speaking up loudly, unashamedly advocating for American agriculture because it’s a huge contribution to our trade surplus. They know that, they know we do it better than anybody in the world. And I want to make sure that they don’t ever forget it at the trade negotiation tables.”
Despite the difficulties farmers face, Perdue said there is much to be thankful for in America: “I know there are a lot of challenges out there, a lot of challenges on the farm...(But) between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico — we live in the best neighborhood on the planet.”