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Ag secretary visits Tri-Cities as tariffs pile up. Farmers press him for answers and help

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, fields a question during a breakfast with Mid-Columbia farmers in Richland Tuesday as U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse looks on. Perdue is the first agriculture secretary in a generation to visit the Mid-Columbia, Newhouse said.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, fields a question during a breakfast with Mid-Columbia farmers in Richland Tuesday as U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse looks on. Perdue is the first agriculture secretary in a generation to visit the Mid-Columbia, Newhouse said. Tri-City Herald

The first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to visit the Tri-Cities in a generation sat down with about 200 Mid-Columbia farmers Tuesday to talk trade, tariffs, farm labor and regulatory reform.

Sonny Perdue traveled to Eastern Washington this week as part of a nationwide listening tour that took him to the Spokane area Monday. He spent Tuesday morning in Richland at Tagaris Winery, where he fielded questions as the guest of U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.

Newhouse said Perdue is the first agriculture secretary to come to the area since Earl Butz, a controversial secretary who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, visited in the 1970s.

As he did in Spokane, Perdue offered broad assurances that the Trump administration has farmers' backs if tough moves on trade disrupts their business.

At the president's encouragement, Perdue said he is developing a mitigation package he wants to release by Labor Day. He declined to reveal specifics, but said the intent is protect farmers who planned to export crops aren't able to do so.

"(President Trump) doesn't expect them to bear the brunt of trade disruption," said Perdue, a veterinarian and former governor of Georgia.

He hinted the USDA's longstanding commodity-buying "Section 32" program could play a role in supporting prices.

Mark Powers, representing Washington's tree fruit growers, told the secretary he was concerned that the $500 million in cherry, apple and pear crops affected by tariffs could be unprotected the mitigation proposal.

Powers asked the Perdue to push the administration to help develop new markets.

Perdue noted that the Section 32 program purchases surplus commodities, including cherries, to protect markets and prices.

Newhouse, himself a farmer, said his peers are concerned about trade disputes and disruptive tariffs, but support the goal of better trade deals.

Perdue also assured agriculture leaders that his boss understands the difference between legal and illegal immigration, and he cautioned farmers to see through the rhetoric surrounding the topic.

"He absolutely knows we need a legal immigration workforce that works," he said.

Perdue affirmed his interest in pursuing a business-friendly agenda that includes streamlining regulations — including fewer inter-agency conflicts that impede business.

Julie Lovell, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, said her son is worried about continuing in the family business because of overregulation. So Perdue invited farmers to share details of their experiences with his office.

"We're serious about addressing regulatory impediments," he said. "We need the details."

Perdue also said that he tells university students to consider studying communication — to help the industry better talk about itself.

He sketched that point by calling out a humorous message he spied on a T-shirt purporting to define "farming" as, "the art of losing money working 400 hours a month feeding people who think we're trying to kill them."

"We haven't told the story of agriculture very well," Perdue said. "We need to tell our story."

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