MADISON, Wis. —Increasing trade with other countries is important to U.S. farmers.

“Trade is the No. 1 issue I hear in the country,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Labor is the No. 2 issue, and regulation is No. 3.”

Perdue traveled to Wisconsin to attend the opening day of the World Dairy Expo.

“I hear about trade because it is important,” he said. “Isn’t it wonderful to be in a country that’s so blessed that we have to depend on foreign markets because of productivity rather than being food dependent like we were on oil at one point in time.”

Perdue answered the following questions during his visit to the World Dairy Expo.

Would you support a national milk supply management system to help keep small family-run dairies in business?

“That’s been tried before, and I don’t think that’s the way we need to go in America. We tried farm programs in the past like set-aside programs and dairy buyouts. The industry has to control its balance of supply and demand.”

What is your message to dairy farmers?

“The 2018 farm bill is much different than the 2014 farm bill for dairy because it provides many more protections. We see milk prices increasing, and we see the risk management in the dairy sector improving. There has been economic stress in the dairy industry, but we believe there are better days ahead.”

What is the potential for exports of cheese?

“The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is critically and vitally important for the dairy industry, as well as all of agriculture. It is a better agreement than the original NAFTA, and I’m trusting the speaker will bring it to the floor of the House very quickly.”

What are you telling dairy farmers that are tired of being patient waiting for the USMCA to pass?

“Dairy farmers are not timid about making their views known, and this is an important bill. Congress is taking its responsibility seriously, and I’m optimistic it will be passed. I’m hoping we can get it done sooner rather than later for the dairy industry, as well as for crops.”

How important do you see the Japanese and Chinese markets?

“Japan has been about our fourth largest customer for a long time, and it’s important for all agriculture sectors. We’re happy to see that agreement reached. China is important, but we need risk mitigation for trade.

“That means not becoming dependent on China again, but spreading it out to India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. There are a lot of mouths to feed, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the market access program.

“U.S. products enjoy a great reputation worldwide for their safety, health and reliability. We need to tear down wherever we can trade barriers that prevent our productive farmers from having access to the hungry mouths around the world.”

Will you talk to the folks at USDA to look at potential changes to the Federal Milk Marketing Order?

“These are very complex structures that have been in place for a number of years. Our role at the USDA is to balance between the consumer and the producer and to make sure people are playing fair and by the rules.”

Is there an opportunity for the agency to work with the Department of Labor to add flexibility to the guest worker program for dairy?

“We are working hard with that. The administration will be coming out with a couple of immigration bills. My council has been to separate those people who want to become citizens of the U.S. versus the legal, reliable agricultural workforce we need.

“We’re hoping to have an opportunity to address not only the seasonality issue, but the adverse wage rate. Ag labor is a huge issue, and we hope it can be addressed in these bills coming forward along with the immigration issue.”

Martha Blum can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 117, or marthablum@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Blum.

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