Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey meets with Trump on farm issues

Source: By Bartholomew D. Sullivan, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey took the opportunity presented at a White House roundtable with President Donald Trump Tuesday afternoon to talk ethanol and said he got assurances he has the administration’s support.

Northey, a fourth-generation Iowa farmer who grows corn and soybeans near Spirit Lake, was on hand to see the president sign an executive order setting up a task force to look at barriers to prosperity in rural America headed up by the newly sworn-in Secretary of Agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“The president was very engaged,” Northey said in an interview outside the White House West Wing after the roundtable ended Tuesday. “He asked a lot of questions of folks as they brought up issues about their farms.”

“I brought up the fact we have a lot of ethanol production in Iowa and he jumped right on it, and said, ‘You know how I’m a strong supporter of ethanol and want to do everything we can to help,’” Northey said. “And so we talked about that just a little bit. But he was very engaged. He wants to be able to grow that industry.”

Northey was one of 14 farmers or agricultural industry advocates on hand, along with Perdue — who was confirmed by the Senate Monday night — to talk farm policy. They included a dairy farmer from Michigan, a citrus producer from Southern California, a vice president of Hormel Foods in Colorado and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau, among others.

“Obviously, we talked exports, and we want to grow that, as well,” Northey said. “As for the Iowa-specific, certainly our focus on ethanol matters to a lot of Iowans.”

Perdue’s late nomination — he was named just a day before the Jan. 20 inauguration — has led some to speculate that agriculture and the needs of rural America are not a priority for the new president who tapped into the demographic in his November victory.

Northey said he had no sense that that’s the case.

“It’s the last he’s gotten through,” Northey said of Perdue’s confirmation, which technically precedes Trump’s second choice for labor secretary, expected to be confirmed this week, after his first choice withdrew. “It’s taken three months and he was a non-controversial nominee. I guess you’d have to talk to the Hill about that.”

Perdue’s confirmation hearing was delayed until the Senate Agriculture Committee had the necessary paperwork outlining the nominee’s decision to take steps to avoid the appearance or real conflicts of interest. As governor, Perdue declined to place his assets in a blind trust but will now have his family wealth preservation trust restructured so that he will have no say in its investments.

Northey said Trump “reinforced” his support for Perdue several times in the roundtable meeting.

“As an issue would come up, he’d turn to Governor Perdue and say, ‘Okay, that’s something else you need to work on. Get me a memo on that.’”

The group also discussed access to farm labor in the context of Trump’s concern over the border, he said.

“He (Trump) was very interested in the folks’ concern about being able to have an H-2A (visa) program that worked and having farm labor,” Northey said. Summarizing the president’s view, Northey said: “We absolutely need a border that works but we also need a program that brings in skilled agricultural workers and that is something that needs to happen … Once again, he turned to Governor Perdue and said: ‘You know, we need to work on that. We need a memo on that. We need to figure it out.’”

Northey gathered with his fellow roundtable participants outside the West Wing as Perdue answered reporters’ questions in a misty rain after the meeting Tuesday, but didn’t speak.

Perdue acknowledged “a lot of anxiety” among farm interests awaiting his leadership at the department, but said he’s settling in to get things done, particularly on farm exports.

“The blessing of America is that we’re so productive — American farmers and ranchers have been so productive over the years — that we have an abundance we need to sell, and that’s going to be my task around the world with (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross and our U.S. Trade Representative,” Perdue said.

He added it will be his job “to make sure American products are on the table all over this world.”