Independent Ag Groups Question the Narrow Focus of White House Rural Task Force

Independent agriculture groups worry that the president’s new agriculture and rural prosperity task force won’t do enough to improve conditions for the little guys. And a community development group says the task force needs to broaden its scope to include more than agriculture.

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Some groups that were not part of a White House agriculture roundtable on Tuesday responded with mild endorsements or outright skepticism for the president’s executive order creating an agriculture and rural development task force that will work on “rural prosperity.”

“We are glad to see the administration finally turning its attention toward America’s farmers and ranchers – agricultural communities have been waiting long enough for President Trump to address their issues and concerns as he promised on the campaign trail,” said Reana Kovalcik of the National Sustainable Agriculture Campaign.

The coalition promotes agricultural policies they say will support “legions of family farms” that produce goods in ways that strengthen rural communities and protect the environment.

A spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the language of the executive order isn’t problematic on its own but that the administration’s previous actions make her skeptical.

“If this were a different administration, I wouldn’t have that many concerns,” said Karen Perry Stillerman of the Union of Concerned Scientists after reviewing the language in the order. “But with the president’s track record of rolling back important environmental protections, his continuous talk of burdensome regulations, that’s off the mark.”

Stillerman wrote “Five Ways President Trump has Failed Rural America” earlier in the day, outlining her concerns related to Trump’s priorities, his proposed budget cuts to USDA, and what she says is his failure to address real issues faced by farmers and ranchers.

“Farmers do have many concerns, but this order does nothing to address them,” she said.

Trump’s signing of an executive order creating the task force coincided with the swearing in of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and a White House roundtable of agricultural interests.

Attending the roundtable, which Perdue led, were major groups such as the Farm Bureau, current and former state secretaries of agriculture, and farmers representing commercial sectors in commodities, dairy, vegetables, and organics.

The types of agriculture represented at the roundtable didn’t mollify Brenda Cochran, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer.

“This roundtable, if that’s what you want to call it, looks like a complete joke to me,” Cochran said. “This looks like more of the same to me, a focus on globalization, exports and trying to ‘feed the world’ with cheap commodity policy. It’s the same approach we’ve had since [the beginning of the Reagan administration], really.”

Other groups questioned the administration’s focus on agriculture to the exclusion of other economic sectors and issues. No community development organizations participated in the roundtable. A press briefing about the executive order emphasized that the task force would focus on agriculture as the solution for reinvigorating rural economies.

“I feel the task force needs to take the broadest view of rural possible, not just farmland,” said Jim King, president and CEO of Fahe, a network of community development organizations in the Southeast. “The fact that they are focusing solely on agriculture shows how little they really understand about rural places and our needs.”

The order did not provide details about the work of the task force, but the president’s comments to the White House ag roundtable made clear that regulatory changes would be part of its work to “[remove] barriers to economic prosperity and quality of life in rural America.”

“I’ve already signed a lot of regulations and terminations that really help the farmer a lot,” Trump said. “But we have some left, and you’ll identify them. But we’ve really gotten rid of some of the biggest ones. And that was a big help, right?”

The task force will begin its work at a time when American agriculture faces difficulties. Crop and livestock prices have seen sharp decreases during the past four years. Farm income is expected to reach only $62.3 billion in 2017, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. That is half of what farmers earned in the record-breaking year of 2013. Despite this loss of income, farmers have continued production by going deeper into debt.

“While we may not have reached the great upheaval of the 80’s farm crisis, I assure you that the fact that it was worse then, is cold comfort to the many farm families who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Scott Marlow, executive director of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), in testimony to the House Agriculture Committee earlier in April. RAFI runs a farm crisis hotline that works one-on-one with farmers struggling to handle credit and debt issues. He said calls have increased with the drop in farm income.

Marlow said farm income challenges should feature more government support for diversification and a focus on ways to address the structure of the farm economy.

“We’re headed into some very difficult years ahead of us,” he said. “Prices are likely to stay flat. In that environment of low prices and low farm income, it’s very strange to hear that increased technology, increased production, is a solution.”

This focus on addressing the farm income challenge will continue to take center stage in agriculture-dependent rural communities throughout the farm belt. The Farm Bill is being re-written, as the current bill expires in 2018.

Marlow was among farm leaders who said they would wait to see what the task force produces before making comments about it.

“I look forward to working with Secretary of Agriculture Perdue, and with the Interagency Task Force,” Marlow said. “There’s a series of critical issues now before USDA, regulatory issues like the GIPSA [Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyard Administration] rules that will tell us a lot. Will they side with draining the swamp or instead choose corporations over farmers? What Perdue and the task force choose to focus on, prioritize and move forward on in the near future, that’s where we’ll understand where this administration is headed.”

Pennsylvania dairy farmer Cochran said she’s already seen enough to make up her mind. She’s concerned that Trump has been captured by the forces of industrial agriculture.

“People voted for Trump because his message resonated,” she said. “Farmers are angry, furious. They’re not listened to. Milk prices right now are lower than they were in 2007. We need a new approach focused on fair prices for farmers. And we need local. Focusing on fake trade wars or imports, on increasing production when prices are low, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

Tim Marema also contributed reporting to this article.

 

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