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It’s time to share the plan

When I read this week about Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D, ND) pitching a podcast hissy over the fact a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deputy secretary nominee will get her full Senate confirmation floor vote on April 24, a few minutes before Sonny Perdue gets his moment in the sun, I chuckled.   Heitkamp contends confirming the DHS nominee before the USDA nominee was more hard evidence the Senate joins the Trump administration in not prioritizing rural and agriculture issues.

“I think if we sit quietly and wait our turn, we will always be last.  I don’t intend to sit quietly,” Heitkamp declared.  Fellow North Dakotan, Sen. John Hoeven (R, ND), reportedly agrees.

In addition to the slow pace of Perdue’s nomination and confirmation, Heitkamp points to President Trump’s so-called “skinny” FY2018 budget outline calling for 21% cut in USDA discretionary spending, along with a seriously uncertain trade policy, as two indicators the White House doesn’t think much about agriculture and rural issues, at least not in a big picture kind of way.

The more I think about Heitkamp’s harangue, the less I chuckle.  It has nothing to do with the order of April 24 Senate confirmation votes, and everything to do with either misunderstanding the importance of agriculture as an economic engine, or simply taking U.S. ag production for granted.  Suffice to say, Heitkamp is not alone in her frustration over where ag sits on President Trump’s priority list.  It’s a bipartisan concern and its growing.

You could argue a 21% whack to USDA’s discretionary spending shouldn’t be a surprise.  After all, USDA is the second largest department in the federal government after the Department of Defense, and to claim there isn’t redundancy in programs or overlap in spending is naive.  However, such a deep cut in discretionary dollars must be considered in the context of the relative percentage of USDA’s overall budget that’s discretionary to begin with.  In FY2017, just $25 billion of USDA’s $155-billion budget is discretionary, i.e., $131 billion represents Treasury dollars that must be spent on various congressionally mandated programs.  Discretionary dollars at USDA are just slightly more than 15% of its total budget, and the president is recommending USDA’s discretionary account be reduced to less than $20 billion for the coming fiscal year.

This is particularly problematic as the House and Senate wade deeper into the legislative swamp that is 2018 Farm Bill construction.  Writing a Farm Bill during fat times, as was done in 2014, is relatively easy; writing a Farm Bill when on-farm income across the board is in the toilet and the nation’s chief executive is looking to cut the size of the federal machine, the number of its employees and the overall price tag is a whole different issue.

A fundamental reality the White House must consider when it talks of jump-starting the “2%-growth economy” inherited from the Obama administration is that increased on-farm income and increased rural employment is only achievable if the U.S. maintains an aggressive agriculture export policy.  The problem is that U.S. ag exports continue to be outpaced by ag imports.

Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), supported by most of mainstream agriculture, was painful.  Not explaining how lost market access will be replaced or taking a shot-gun approach to trade deals not only fosters uncertainty, it’s downright scary for those who understand trade is the growth engine for U.S. agriculture.

In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee in February, Robert Johansson, USDA chief economist, looked at the rural economic factors “setting the stage” for the 2018 Farm Bill.  Said Johansson:

“Expanding export opportunities for U.S. farm products is critical for the agricultural economy. U.S. agricultural exports account for about 20% of the value of U.S. agricultural production, nearly doubling since 1990.  For some commodities, exports account for a significant share of production – around 50% for soybeans, wheat, and rice; 75% for cotton, and nearly 90% for almonds.  Trade is not only important to U.S. farm incomes, but to the broader U.S. economy.  USDA estimates each dollar of U.S. farm exports produces an additional $1.27 in economic activity, and every billion dollars in agricultural sales overseas supports about 8,000 American jobs.”

This administration is nothing if not unconventional, so it very well may have an elegant strategy on growing the economy, cutting the size of government without sacrificing service, and growing trade in all sectors, including agriculture.  It may have the deepest understanding of production agriculture and the value of exports of all recent administrations.

If so, it’s time to share the strategy, share the understanding and share the information.

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