Ag Today March 31 , 2017

Californians at Odds as Trump’s Ag Pick Clears Senate Hurdle

By Ted Goldberg MARCH 30, 2017

When the Senate Agriculture Committee voted Thursday to send President Trump’s pick to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the full Senate, the man who runs one of California’s top farm industry groups began to see a future where his organization had more access to the White House.

Trump nominated former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be Secretary of Agriculture in January, but his confirmation was delayed when ethical concerns about his business ties emerged.

During that time, agricultural groups have had no line in to the White House, according to California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger.

“The folks aren’t there to talk to,” Wenger said in an interview Thursday. “Nobody really knows how to get a hold and to weigh in on issues. We just need to get somebody in there.”

The farm bureau was initially supportive of Tom Vilsack, the former USDA secretary under former President Obama. Vilsack visited California many times and several top officials at the department came from the state.

But during a visit to California last year, Vilsack advocated for overtime benefits for farmworkers in the state. While labor advocates and California lawmakers backed a new law passed last summer, the industry was opposed.

Perdue understands the issues that California farmers face, Wenger said. Just like Georgia, the Golden State relies on immigrant labor for agricultural work.

Perdue has moderate views on trade and immigration. Politico pointed out that those views are not entirely in line with Trump’s.

A recent report from the UCLA Anderson Forecast found that the new administration’s stricter immigration policies could particularly affect the estimated 840,000 people in the state’s agricultural industry.

Another industry group, Western Growers, which represents local and regional family farmers in California, applauded the committee’s vote and touched on the same theme.

“We trust that secretary-designate Perdue will pursue a resolution to one of our industry’s greatest needs, ensuring that immigration reform — one that works for all of agriculture — remains a top priority for the president,” said Tom Nassif, the organization’s president and CEO.

Local environmental groups are not happy Perdue’s road to the White House cabinet is now moving smoothly.

Erich Pica, president of the Berkeley-based Friends of the Earth, called Perdue’s confirmation hearing impossibly short and easy.

The committee failed to properly scrutinize Perdue’s record, Pica said in a statement.

“Allowing the Trump administration to smoothly confirm a nominee dogged by ethics complaints and vexed with deep personal ties to big agribusiness is reprehensible,” Pica said. “Perdue’s inability to separate business and politics make him unfit to serve and we hope Democrats will not turn a blind eye to his ethics.”

Perdue’s confirmation hearing came after he reached an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to avoid conflicts of interest. As governor of Georgia, he was criticized for refusing to place his assets in a blind trust.

In the deal he is cutting ties to his farming business, but keeping his real estate investments.

A Special Relevance For Californians

The USDA runs a food safety division that came under scrutiny in the Bay Area after the 2014 nationwide meat recall involving the now-defunct, Petaluma-based Rancho Feeding Corp.

The recall led the department’s Office of Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to hire more full-time inspectors to keep tabs on meat-processing plants across the country.

Food safety advocates who pushed for stricter enforcement of slaughterhouse regulations due to the Rancho recall are cautiously optimistic about Perdue, who is a trained veterinarian.

“On his resume, he comes in with a food safety background,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch.

While Trump’s budget calls for a $4.7 billion cut in the USDA’s budget, the president’s spending plan does not make cuts to the FSIS.

“That’s one glimmer of hope,” Corbo said.

Trump has not yet nominated someone to be the FSIS under-secretary.

A better picture of the new administration’s views on food safety should come once that person has been named and the president’s more detailed spending plan emerges in the coming months, Corbo said.

Another agency under the USDA that has increased its work in California is the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency has managed public land in California for more than a century. In recent years, large sections of national forestland in the state have been charred by massive wildfires.

“They’re one of the very largest land owners in California,” said Susie Kocher, a natural resources adviser and registered professional forester for the University of California’s Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra. “What they do has always been really important to local communities and the state economy as a whole.”

Trump’s budget makes no cuts to the department’s funds for wildland fire preparedness and firefighting.

Kocher said she hopes Perdue makes reforms to federal forest management including tree thinning and prescribed burns “to keep our forests more resilient and healthy so they can withstand wildfire and drought.”

During the years-long dry spell, more than a 100 million trees died across California.

“We’re really dealing with a crisis in forest health,” Kocher said.