Spring is a time for change. As planters roll across the fields it gives farmers the opportunity to expand or shrink acreages for certain crops, eliminate some crops entirely from the rotation, or make an addition to the cropping scheme.
In short, it is a time when a reorganization plan can be carried out and the future can hold the possibility of new and exciting things.
Excitement was also the message of the day when newly confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, announced a major reorganization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 11.
This is the first time the department has undergone a significant reshuffling since 1994. The reorganization will create an undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, which recognizes the ever-increasing importance of international trade to American agriculture.
Perdue also announced the start of a newly-named Farm Production and Conservation mission area that will have a customer focus and meet USDA constituents in the field. Finally, he announced that the department’s Rural Development agencies would be elevated to report directly to the secretary of agriculture in recognition of the need to help promote rural prosperity.
“Food is a noble thing to trade. This nation has a great story to tell and we’ve got producers here that produce more than we can consume,” Perdue said. “And that’s good, because I’m a grow-it-and-sell-it kind of guy. Our people in American agriculture have shown they can grow it, and we’re here to sell it in markets all around the world.”
The restructuring received praise from North Dakota’s two major farm organizations, with both thinking a trade undersecretary can only help with the export of the nation’s farm products. However, Mark Watne, president of the state’s Farmers Union expressed some concern that rural development may suffer due to the reorganization.
“What I am hearing is both good and bad,” Watne said. “The good news is we do need agricultural, like farmers, representation in trade negotiations. But I don’t know why establishing a trade department needs to come at the expense of cooperative development.
“One of the greatest concerns we have in agriculture is trying to add value to what we produce so that we can make a little more money and farmers can definitely have better logistics and/or maybe ownership in some of these development programs.”
On the other hand, North Dakota Farm Bureau president, Daryl Lies, feels increases our ag exports will provide rural development to the state.
“I think it is a very positive move, and it was probably overdue,” Lies said. “The trade undersecretary position was due to a mandate in the 2014 Farm Bill…it is a positive thing and we are going to see a lot more innovative and creative ways to try and re-align and make USDA better government.
“The best thing you can do for rural development is to get more of our products and get an expanded line of commodities that are able to be traded around the world,” adding that rural development brings in new money and requires less dependence on government.
“The best thing we can do is open up those trade markets and keep us first – don’t sell us out when they make those agreements,” he said.
Senator John Hoeven, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations Subcommittee, also praised the creation of an Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.
He served as a member of the Senate/House conference committee that crafted the final farm bill of 2014, which directed USDA to create the undersecretary of trade position.
“Our farmers and ranchers do a tremendous job producing high-quality food, fuel and fiber to feed the world, which is why agriculture has a positive balance of trade. We appreciate Secretary Perdue’s focus on growing foreign markets for American products, which is vital to the success of our farmers and ranchers,” Hoeven said.
However, the reorganization does have a few critics. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has come out opposing the restructuring, claiming it will result in the demotion of Rural Development to simply an “office” under the secretary. This will result in the loss of its Cabinet-level status and the decision-making power that comes with being categorized as a USDA mission area.
“This demotion, taken together with the Administration’s recent attempt to wipe out rural business programs through the appropriation’s process, sends a clear signal that the President does not understand the critical nature of rural development to the American economy,” the NSAC press release said.
The Center for Rural Affairs Policy’s Anna Johnson also came out in opposition to the reorganization of USDA, saying rural America stands to suffer as a result.
“The Center for Rural Affairs has fought on behalf of rural communities for nearly 45 years. We are heartened that Secretary Perdue is making strong efforts during his early days in office to express support for rural communities. However, we are concerned about the path he has chosen. Purdue has proposed eliminating the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development and moving oversight of Rural Development agencies to the deputy secretary, USDA’s second-in-command.”
If he makes this change, Perdue will be removing the position of the most significant rural advocate within USDA. Rural America stands to suffer as a result.
“While USDA has a broad mission to promote and support our country’s food and agriculture, Rural Development is the only part of USDA that has the explicit directive to support rural communities.”
Producers across the region will be interested to see if the proposed changes in the USDA structure will fulfill a statement Perdue made later in the week at a stop in Iowa. “It’s time we let farmers farm and ranchers ranch.”