As Trump meets biotech CEOs, farm advisers fret over empty USDA spot


U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has left the agriculture secretary as the last department head to be named to his Cabinet, while a meeting with the chief executives of two agribusiness giants gave a hint at a roster of farm issues the incoming president will face.

Trump met on Wednesday with the leaders of Monsanto Co and Bayer AG , who pitched the benefits of their proposed $66 billion merger. While critical of other large tie-ups, Trump has not publicly taken a stance on the Bayer-Monsanto deal.

The secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not approve or reject the merger but will face the issue of industry consolidation.

Dow Chemical Co has proposed to merge with DuPont , and China National Chemical Corp (ChemChina) [CNNCC.UL] is seeking to acquire Syngenta AG .

Trade, environmental regulation and the 2018 federal farm bill are also expected to be at the top of the farm agenda once Trump takes office Jan. 20, according members of an agricultural advisory committee he formed during the campaign.

How Trump responds on those issues - and who he picks to lead the USDA - could determine whether he is able to maintain the strong rural support he demonstrated in the Nov. 8 election.

Some committee members told Reuters they have had meetings with Trump and his advisers, and have suggested possible nominees to help define the type of��person who should lead the department.

Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue is Trump's leading candidate to run the department, a senior Trump transition team official said last week.

Trump has also met with Elsa Murano, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety under President George W. Bush, and Chuck Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

He has also talked with Abel Maldonado, former lieutenant governor of California and co-owner of Runway Vineyards; Tim Huelskamp, former Republican U.S. representative from Kansas; and Sid Miller, Texas agriculture commissioner.

Trump's committee wants someone who is familiar with day-to-day farm life, can open up new markets for trade and will pressure federal regulators to ease environmental restrictions, according to a dozen committee members interviewed by Reuters.

"The sooner we have someone in place (as Agriculture Secretary), the better," said Mike Strain, Louisiana���s commissioner of agriculture and forestry, and part of Trump���s agricultural advisory committee.

A.G. Kawamura, a former California agriculture secretary who is on the committee, said discussions within Trump's transition team were "free and flowing" about who should head the agency.

The USDA is made up of 29 agencies and offices that perform jobs ranging from agricultural research to working with foreign governments to facilitate trade.

"Generally, the country knows who the proposed cabinet is going to be before Inauguration Day. But if I've learned anything this past year, it's that you can't make assumptions about what will happen," he said.

John Block, an Illinois corn, soybean and hog producer who served as USDA secretary under President Ronald Reagan, is certain Trump will make the right choice.

���We like to think we���ll see a conclusion soon, so we can look to the future," he said. "But we have plenty of confidence in Trump, and we���re hanging in there."

One key trait some are looking for: someone to stand up for farmers amid a flurry of merger deals, such as the Bayer-Monsanto tie-up. But even members of Trump's own agricultural advisory committee disagree about the deal's merits.

Bayer CEO Werner Baumann and Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant had a "productive meeting with President-elect Trump and his team to share their views on the future of the agriculture industry and its need for innovation," according to a statement issued by both companies.

Bill Northey, Iowa���s agriculture secretary and a member of Trump���s agricultural advisory team, said he believed the president-elect was paying attention to the Monsanto-Bayer merger because rural voters supported him in the election. He said it was possible that parts of the deal might be "beneficial and pieces of it would be detrimental."

(Additional reporting by Mike Hirtzer and Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Editing by David Greising and Lisa Shumaker)