Three days after releasing the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2018 Farm Bill Principles and Policies, Secretary Sonny Perdue met with farmers in the Midlands to get their opinions on priorities.
Perdue visited City Roots Farm in Columbia and two Manchester Farms facilities near Hopkins on Saturday. The secretary said when he was planning the visit, he told the South Carolina Department of Agriculture he wanted to see innovative ideas for “farm to fork” efforts.
“Providing food is a noble cause,” he told the group. “The Farm Bill will be evolutionary.”
Perdue also said the Farm Bill will “be under fiscal restraint.”
One of the priorities Perdue introduced in the 2018 Farm Bill is rural access to broadband and high-speed internet. He said connecting America “is a huge priority.”
“I think broadband around the nation both in urban and rural areas can be the most transformative thing we’ve done since rural electrification or the federal highway interstate system. We want to take the federal spends along with state and local spends as well as the private sector and focus in strategically like a laser over how we go across this country with a multi-year plan of becoming ubiquitous with broadband coverage across the country,” he said. “It’s good for precision agriculture”
“We think we can be a facilitator to get this done and we’ll continue to push because I think it’s that important for rural America. If you’re really talking about the quality of life in rural America, then broadband has to be a part of that,” he said.
Another issue Perdue said is among his top priorities is temporary agricultural labor. One guest representing Rawl & Sons in Lexington County told the commissioner they are having a hard time finding local labor.
“It is difficult to find Americans who want to do the work,” he said, of the farm that employs as many as 800 people during the season. So the farm has been forced to turn to laborers on temporary work visas.
“Let’s just face it,” Perdue said. “I wish we could have Americans who wanted to do those jobs at $15, $16, $17 an hour but they are simply just not available. We’ve got many people who want to come here for economic freedom on a temporary basis — not citizenship — but they want to come and provide for their family. We think it’s a win-win situation to have a legal agricultural workforce.”
Perdue said he’s been discussing the temporary work visas with President Trump and Congress as they try to work on an immigration bill.
“We’ve been in contact with Congress and the White House over making sure they know how important the labor issue is and we think it’s mostly a choice between importing labor or importing food. That’s how serious it gets,” he said.
In his informal conversation with South Carolina farmers, Perdue said he wanted to see how USDA programs work and are helping them.
“The programs that we have in USDA, we’re actually hoping to enhance them to invite and deal with access to capital, access to land,” he said. “You don’t have to start with 1,000 acres… you can have an economically viable operation on smaller acres. It’s a process of working smarter and doing things in a different way.”
Perdue also said policy writers for the 2018 Farm Bill will see the industry is changing. One suggestion he had is that U.S. companies consider options that provide for the processing of agricultural products instead of exporting commodities.
“Policy follows culture in the marketplace,” he said.