Trump has ‘still plenty of unknowns’ concerning ag
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
(March 14, 2017) The morning after November’s presidential election, the Maryland Agricultural Commission held its monthly meeting inside the state department of agriculture in Annapolis, Md.
The night before, Donald Trump, the billionaire New York real estate developer and Republican challenger to Hillary Clinton, had won the White House, shocking the nation and defying a near certitude from polls and political experts that Clinton would be the next president.
As members of the 30-seat commission went around the room, offering updates on the state’s varied agricultural sectors, one member finally mentioned Trump.
He cited a report — presumably one from the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2014 — that said an immigration policy promoted by Trump and focused on closing the border along Mexico threatened to push 61 percent of the nation’s immigrant-dependent produce production to other countries.
“That wouldn’t be good,” the commission member said. “So there are some pros and cons to our president-elect already.”
After a brief but notable silence, the meeting moved on.
The moment may have captured a conditional optimism among many Delmarva farmers under the nascent Trump administration.
The president handily carried counties in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia that contain most of the region’s agricultural production, and farmers and agricultural leaders said last week they’re largely encouraged by what he’s said and done in his first two months in office.
Others say it’s too soon to evaluate.
Farmers have praised Trump’s efforts to strike down what he calls excessive regulation of business, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S. rule — part of the Clean Water Act — which allows the agency to regulate not just rivers and lakes but almost any collected body of water, including drainage ditches and intermittent streams.
Farmers have long decried the rule, claiming it infringes on personal property rights and adds unnecessary costs to their operation, particularly for livestock producers.
“I think overall farmers are very happy,” said Scott Barao, director of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Association. “I don’t know that there are any negatives compared to the previous administration at least as far as the livestock side.”
Even full-throated critics of the Trump administration take issue with the rule, including Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse.
He said he has heavy concerns about other goals of Trump’s administration related to immigration and trade but agrees with that particular regulatory rollback.
“Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency will use heavy-handed regulation instead of trying to work with states and with the ag community and others,” said Scuse, who served at high levels in President Obama’s agriculture department from May 2012 through last January.
There is also the general sense that Trump, long associated with glittering real estate success as well as several bankruptcies, places a priority on business and economic concerns.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, seeing new political opportunity, has repeatedly called on Trump and Congress to slash regulation.
But much of the praise from agriculture is tempered.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns,” said Chip Councell, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council, which promotes American grain abroad, and a 10th generation farmer in Talbot County, Md. “We’re optimistic that things will turn out well for us.”
Among the concerns, Councell said: Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade agreement negotiated over several years among 12 Pacific Rim nations designed to reduce tariffs and boost trade.
National agricultural leaders ultimately agreed the pact would have helped American farmers.
Had Trump decided to stick with it, it would have created more than 40,000 new jobs and increased net farm income by $4.4 billion a year by eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Trump has said his administration plans to instead negotiate bilateral trade deals that he said favor American interests, particularly Rust Belt workers hurt by cheaper foreign labor and automated technology.
“President Trump’s goal here is on the manufacturing side and not necessarily on the ag side,” said David Burrier, a Carroll County farmer and the biofuels representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission. He said he sees Trump optimistically as a “pro-business” president. “I do have a side (concern) that agriculture’s not caught somewhere in the middle there, that it will affect our trade.”
The coarsening of relations between the federal government and Mexico is also concerning, farming leaders said.
Trump’s stated desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade agreement, which he says favors Mexico, has also rankled the Mexican government.
They’ve also clashed over immigration, including Trump’s flashiest campaign promise: to build a massive border wall between the two countries and eventually force Mexico to pay for it.
Mexico is the United States’ third largest agricultural trading partner, and exports to the country totaled $18 billion in 2015, including nearly $4 billion in corn and soybeans, according to White House data.
Roughly a quarter of net farm income comes from exports.
“Exports are too important to ignore,” he said. “Trade is important. It’s essential.”
Many agricultural producers also rely on low-cost foreign labor, much of it moving through the Mexican border legally or not, and there’s already a shortage of it. Restricting trade could not only hurt farmers but consumers as well, Scuse said.
“I don’t know that our consumers in the country fully understand how important that workforce is and what it means to get products that are fresh, products to them that are cost-effective,” he said. “It’s headed down the wrong path. On the immigration issues, there needs to be more thought given to what’s done and how it’s done.”
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder declined to be interviewed for this story.
Immigration is the “No. 1 issue with farmers,” said Hail Bennett, a Delaware peach farmer who relies on seasonal workers and fears the Trump administration won’t make it easier for him to secure their employment.
Federal programs to bring in workers can also require arduous, complicated paperwork.
“Sometimes the labor isn’t there and we aren’t able to find the people we need,” he said.
Farmers said it’s critically important that Trump and Congress do whatever it takes to confirm Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue — viewed as a clear and staunch defender of farming interests — as the new agriculture secretary.
But it’s critical the farming community remains tuned into political developments, AFBF President Zippy Duvall said last month.
He addressed a USDA forum Feb. 23 and touched on a number of issues.
“A lot of people across this country are sitting back saying, ‘I’ve done my job, I’ve got the man in the White House I want there,’ and ‘I got my Congressman or Senator I want there’,” he said. “But I’m challenging you, I’m saying your job’s not done. We have the greatest opportunity in recent history of this country to actually stay engaged and make a difference in our futures.”
For now, Barao said he’s looking to the future.
“I don’t know what’s coming for sure, but I do know we got a lot of happy ag producers for now,” Barao said. “We’re 50 days into the administration. We’ve got to let a good horse run here.”