By ANDREA MCCANN
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — A stop at the Indiana State Fair was the grand finale for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s six-day, five-state Midwest “Back to our Roots” tour.
He and his wife, Mary, toured the fair and met with agricultural industry stakeholders in a listening session over lunch August 8 at the historic Normandy Barn on the state fairgrounds. “Indiana is home to Purdue,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb at the event. “I hope now we’re a second home to another Perdue.”
The secretary’s visit was part of an 1,801-mile RV tour that included stops at farms, fairs, USDA facilities and agricultural businesses in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, as well as the Hoosier State. Perdue visited with farmers, ranchers, foresters, students, legislators and USDA employees, among others, at his stops, with the goal of gathering input on the 2018 farm bill and rural prosperity.
“The ‘Back to our Roots’ farm bill and rural prosperity RV listening tour will allow us to hear directly from people in agriculture across the country, as well as our consumers – they are the ones on the front lines of American agriculture, and they know best what the current issues are,” Perdue said in a press release prior to the tour.
“USDA will be intimately involved as Congress deliberates and formulates the 2018 farm bill. We're committed to making the resources and the research available so that Congress can make good, fact-based, data-driven decisions. It’s important to look at past practices to see what has worked and what has not worked, so that we create a farm bill for the future that will be embraced by American agriculture in 2018.”
In her introduction of Perdue at a press conference following the invitation-only listening session, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch commended Perdue for seeking feedback from those people with firsthand knowledge about the industry. “He gets it,” she said.
She added the former Georgia governor understands the importance of allowing states to direct the conversations that form policy at the federal level.
“The Secretary asked great questions,” said U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who was on hand for the listening session. “He listened more than he spoke.”
Both farmer Tom Dull of Thorntown and past Indiana Farm Bureau president and farmer Don Villwock, of Edwardsport, said they were happy with what they heard. They said they were impressed and pleased with Perdue’s already detailed understanding of the issues facing the agriculture community.
“I’m really impressed,” said Villwock, whose name had popped up as a possible contender for USDA secretary when President Trump was considering candidates. “I’ve known a lot of secretaries (of agriculture), and he’s really impressive.”
He said Perdue is able to get into the “micro levels” of the issues and that he wasn’t really surprised Perdue is on top of things given his agricultural background and capacity as a “tremendous study.”
Perdue’s father was a farmer, and Perdue is a doctor of veterinary medicine and started three small businesses. “He responded with minute detail,” Dull agreed, saying Perdue is well-rounded.
Dull, whose family owns and operates Dull’s Tree Farm and Pumpkin Patch, also said if Perdue disagreed with a comment, or had an opposing opinion, he didn’t hesitate to say so and – most importantly –explain why. “I appreciated his candor,” he said. “It’s refreshing, especially coming from the Beltway.”
A couple of recurring topics on Perdue’s tour were climate change and the Transpacific Partnership (TPP). Asked by an Indiana reporter how he’ll address climate change, Perdue said, “We’re going to utilize sound science, not ideology.”
Addressing the effect on American ag exports of Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, Perdue told Indiana media assembled after the listening session – to which they were not invited – that Trump believes the United States will benefit more from bilateral negotiations than multilateral pacts.
Perdue said his theme with Trump has been “do no harm” to ag. That theme also carries into the farm bill discussion. “My message is, first of all, do no harm in agriculture,” Perdue said.
“Don’t use agriculture as a sacrificial lamb.”
He said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will not take a hit in 2018. “SNAP is fully funded in the ’18 budget. There will be less money used, because more people are working.”
Perdue said some programs came out better than others in the 2014 farm bill, so he hopes to even the playing field in the upcoming bill. “Cotton and dairy didn’t fare well,” he said. “I hope to retify that in 2018.” But Perdue said producers just want a fair price for a good crop. “My No. 1 take-away from the (Indiana) meeting is creating a safety net so farmers can produce for the market, not a program.”
That should make Hoosier producers happy.
“I would say I’m encouraged by what I heard,” Dull said. “The Secretary has good ideas that will be beneficial to Indiana farmers. The safety net aspect of the farm bill is the best example.”