USDA moves to advance ag trade
— Reorganizes to streamline services
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue recently announced he is taking steps to help advance agricultural trade by creating new positions and realigning agencies in the department.
Taking action on directives outlined in the 2014 farm bill, Perdue announced the creation of an under secretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs and an under secretary for farm production and conservation.
Perdue issued a memorandum (http://tinyurl.com/Trade-Memo) explaining the realignment and renaming of positions and agencies at USDA. The document outlined changes, explaining that the Foreign Agricultural Service and authorities previously established within the office of the under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services will be transferred and reestablished under the under secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
USDA told WLJ, “The under secretary for trade will complement the work of the USTR [U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer] and work closely with that office, as well as the secretary of commerce [Wilbur Ross].”
Lighthizer was confirmed to serve as USTR earlier this month, drawing approval from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) which has established expanding international markets as a top priority.
“International trade is vital to the success of America’s cattle industry and in his new role, Ambassador Lighthizer will serve as our chief negotiator in all trade matters,” said NCBA President Craig Uden. “As Ambassador Lighthizer begins his new job, we urge him to focus his efforts on opening and expanding our access to other markets and preventing any action that may hinder our export growth.”
Adding to the discussion about the new trade under secretary, NCBA Vice President, Government Affairs, Colin Woodall, said. “It’s not just about the discussions on opening new markets. For example, this position will also help us when there are packing plants that happen to get de-listed for any particular reason or there is any sort of non-tariff trade barrier that pops up that is more regulatory in nature rather than the actual creation of a trade agreement.
This position will also be able to help us resolve issues like that when they come up.”
In other realignments, the under secretary for rural development (RD) position was abolished. Perdue’s memo said, “The Rural Utilities Service, Rural Business Service, the Rural Housing Service, and the chief risk officer previously established under the office of the under secretary for rural development, are realigned to report directly to the secretary of agriculture.”
Although the RD position was dissolved, the department remains. USDA responded to questions from WLJ, saying, “Rural Development will, in fact, be elevated to report directly to the secretary of agriculture, rather than how an under secretary would report to the deputy secretary. The agencies contained within RD will remain as currently constituted. RD is gaining power, access and direct influence. Secretary Perdue is a son of rural America and believes fully that this is an increase in stature for rural issues at USDA.”
USDA went on to tell WLJ a new under secretary will be selected for a newlynamed Farm Production and Conservation mission area, which is to focus on domestic agricultural issues. Programs under this area will include the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
USDA said having these programs under a domestically-oriented under secretary will “Provide a simplified one-stop shop for US- DA’s primary customers, the men and women farming, ranching, and foresting across America.”
The American Farm Bureau Association (AFBF) applauded the new trade position and realignment with President Zippy Duvall saying, “Secretary Perdue’s action to create an under secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs is good news for farmers and ranchers, and assures that exports will receive daily attention at the USDA.” He continued, “We know that there are other important changes coming to the department as part of a larger reorganization effort. We look forward to receiving and reviewing details of that plan, as well as the effect it will have on America’s farmers, ranchers and farm communities.
Duvall went on to say, “It was clear throughout the secretary’s confirmation process that members of Congress—like the secretary himself—were eager to see him create the office of the under secretary as required by the 2014 farm bill. Today’s announcement makes good on that commitment.”
NCBA also welcomed the news and released a statement from Uden saying, “Establishing this new under secretary for trade position was one of our top priorities for 2017, so we are extremely pleased to see Secretary Perdue filling in the gaps left by the previous administration. This position will play a vital role in leading USDA’s efforts to capitalize on foreign demand for U.S. agriculture products and we look forward to working with the under secretary to break down trade barriers and expand our ability to meet the growing demand for U.S. beef in key markets like Asia.”
On the other announcements to realign the department, Uden said, “We believe the restructuring of USDA makes sense for cattlemen and women, providing a one-stop shop for producers who utilize the many services of the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Additionally, having Rural Development directly reporting to the secretary shows the emphasis he is placing on helping rural America.”
Woodall told WLJ some questions have surfaced, raising concerns that USDA functions will suffer from the changes. He noted that he doesn’t believe rural development will be hurt, saying, “I believe having those agencies report directly to the secretary shows that he is committed and that he is going to give them a lot of attention; and I think you could also argue that he removed a layer of bureaucracy so hopefully he can help the Rural Development Agency make decisions even quicker than they otherwise would.”
Woodall explained that under the current alignment of USDA departments, a cattle producer or farmer wanting to enroll in conservation programs or apply for disaster assistance may have to go to different offices, but by having FSA, RMA and NRCS all in the same line it could save producers time and expedite their ability to apply for these programs by having one place where they can go to get all of their questions answered. “We think that was a great move,” Woodall said.
Asked if the new trade under secretary will help to keep agriculture at the forefront of trade talks, Woodall said it could but noted, “I have a hard time making any argument that we have been marginalized by previous administrations on trade conversations. In every trade conversation that has happened since I’ve been in town, regardless of administration, ag has always been at the table. I think this just helps to reinforce that.” — Rae Price, WLJ editor