WASHINGTON – As farmers fret over President Donald Trump's criticism of international trade agreements, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to reassure them by creating a top post to oversee trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
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The new undersecretary position is a sign of Perdue's efforts to promote the U.S. agricultural industry as Trump has sought to undo trade pacts that benefit it. Perdue made the announcement in Cincinnati Thursday while standing near barges that carry grain on the Ohio River.
"This nation has a great story to tell and we've got producers here that produce more than we can consume," the former Georgia governor said. He said the new position "fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture's unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world."
On his second day in office last month, Perdue helped persuade Trump not to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, arguing that doing so would hurt U.S. farmers. Trump has said he will work to renegotiate the pact instead.
The 2014 farm bill had directed USDA to make a plan for the new position, but the Obama administration never created the post. Perdue said the new undersecretary will work with incoming U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to "ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world."
The Senate confirmed Lighthizer Thursday. Though he had broad support from both parties, Republican Sens. John McCain and Ben Sasse said they wouldn't vote for him because they doubted he would champion agriculture and negotiate trade deals to the benefit of American consumers and the economy.
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The departmental reorganization announced by Perdue would also combine farm production and conservation agencies under one undersecretary and move rural development programs to report directly to the secretary. Perdue said that will put more focus on those programs and USDA efforts to revitalize small towns.
While the creation of the trade secretary won widespread praise in farm country, at least one Democrat is criticizing the rural development move. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio called it a "downgrade" because there will no longer be an undersecretary for that area.
Brown says his state depends on the program for help with combating opioid abuse, building hospitals and securing loans for businesses.
"Ohio's rural communities are too often overlooked by Washington as it is, and downgrading USDA Rural Development sends a message that rural Ohio is not a priority for this administration," Brown said.