Rural America Still Waiting to See Who Trump Taps for Secretary of Agriculture

Dan Flynn January 10, 2017

When the bit­ter cold began spread­ing over rur­al Amer­i­ca last month, the par­lor guess­ing game around many a wood stove was guess­ing who Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald J. Trump would name as sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture. But the time for that game has passed.

The past three pres­i­dents all named their ag boss­es by the end of the Decem­ber before they took office. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had not only named for­mer Iowa Gov. Tom Vil­sack as sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, but got him con­firmed by the U.S. Sen­ate in time to take office on Jan­u­ary. 20, 2009. Trump is now just two weeks out from being sworn in as 45th pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, and has not yet named any­one to lead the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture.

There have been some reports that Trump’s slow move­ment to fill the post as a sign of his lim­it­ed inter­est in rur­al America’s issues. But the facts do not real­ly line up with that inter­pre­ta­tion. Trump has inter­viewed almost two dozen can­di­dates for the job, and spent up to five hours one of them. Trump might be using the can­di­dates to teach him the many intri­ca­cies of the agri­cul­tur­al industry.

Var­i­ous seg­ments of agri­cul­ture are all ready to help Trump pre­pare a mis­sion for the new ag min­is­ter. Chances are the new USDA boss will be named short­ly, be it the most pre­dict­ed choice — for­mer Geor­gia Gov. Son­ny Per­due — or one of the two lat­est can­di­dates to vis­it with Trump. The late­com­ers are for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Lt. Gov. Abel Mal­don­a­do and for­mer U.S. Under Sec­re­tary for Food Safe­ty Elsa Mura­no. Mura­no, who served for a short time as Texas A&M pres­i­dent, is the one report­ed to have spent five hours with Trump. She is now a pro­fes­sor of food safe­ty at A&M.

Trump’s mis­sion for his new sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, who­ev­er he or she turns out to be, is the sub­ject that most inter­ests the nation’s farm­ers and ranch­ers. The change at USDA comes as com­mod­i­ty prices are expe­ri­enc­ing sev­en-year lows, and low cycles in prices make many rur­al peo­ple anxious.

As a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Trump expressed opin­ions on only a small frac­tion of rur­al America’s many issues. He did promise to kill the new Clean Water Act rules that came quick­ly to be known to the dis­may of the Envi­ron­men­tal Impact Agency as the Waters of the Unit­ed States or WOTUS. EPA is fear­ing the pre­dictable head­line: POTUS kills WOTUS.

Ag and indus­try orga­ni­za­tions are already con­test­ing the rules in the courts, which many say usurp state author­i­ty because there is no lim­it on EPA’s author­i­ty to deter­mine what con­sti­tutes waters of the U.S.” How­ev­er, most of rur­al Amer­i­ca sees the 299-page WOTUS rule book as so flawed that it must be total­ly with­drawn. But that will be com­pli­cat­ed because once the fed­er­al courts are involved, it’s hard to do any­thing with­out their con­tin­ued involvement.

WOTUS foes point to a 77-year-old Navy vet­er­an sent to a fed­er­al prison for 18 months after he cre­at­ed some fire-fight­ing ponds under State of Mon­tana per­mits but was found guilty in 2015 in a sec­ond fed­er­al tri­al for Clean Water Act violations.

Also, a small Wyoming ranch­er build­ing a state-per­mit­ted farm pond rang up $20 mil­lion in EPA fines before a legal aide ser­vice got EPA to drop the fine in exchange for the ranch­er promis­ing to plant a tree.

Oth­er issues are not as dra­mat­ic, but there is no end to the rur­al issues that Trump will now have to decide. Corn and soy­bean orga­ni­za­tions are look­ing for specifics on biotech and alter­na­tive fuels. Pro­duce grow­ers won­der about employ­ee ver­i­fi­ca­tion, or E‑Verify, becom­ing manda­to­ry for all employers.

The Den­ver-based Nation­al Cattlemen’s Beef Asso­ci­a­tion (NCBA) wants to bring respon­si­ble man­age­ment and eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty back to the West­ern land­scape.” It says with­in the first 100 days, the admin­is­tra­tion should bring a halt to the Sage Grouse Resource Man­age­ment Plans, repeal mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tions made through the Antiq­ui­ties Act, address the crit­i­cal habi­tat des­ig­na­tions impos­ing restric­tions on landown­ers, and imme­di­ate­ly with­draw EPA’s waters of the Unit­ed States” rule and the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment s plan­ning 2.0 rule.

Fur­ther down the road, the NCBA is call­ing for for reform­ing of the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act and the Endan­gered Species Act. Also it says some­thing must be done about the explod­ing pop­u­la­tions” of wild hors­es and bur­ros that it says are starv­ing due to expan­sion well beyond range-car­ry­ing capac­i­ty.” They say fed­er­al graz­ing poli­cies should be reevaluated.

And there is the ques­tion of how agri­cul­ture fits into Trump’s plans to remake U.S. trade poli­cies. U.S. food and agri­cul­ture indus­tries gen­er­al­ly do well in over­seas trade. Expand­ing those mar­kets could run afoul of the new president’s view.

Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture choice not as dif­fi­cult as farm pol­i­cy” was orginial­ly pub­lished on food​safe​tynews​.com and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.

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Dan Fly­nn is a Den­ver-based writer and edi­tor with more than ten years of food safe­ty expe­ri­ence. As a pub­lic affairs pro­fes­sion­al, he worked with gov­ern­ment and reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies at the local, state, and fed­er­al lev­els. His career as a jour­nal­ist includ­ed work­ing for news­pa­pers through­out the West, from the Black Hills to Seat­tle. His on-scene report­ing on the col­lapse of the Idaho’s Teton Dam and the sui­cide bomb­ing at Wash­ing­ton State University’s Per­ham Hall was car­ried by news­pa­pers around the world and was rec­og­nized both times region­al­ly by the Asso­ci­at­ed Press for Best Report­ing on a Dead­line. Most of the dis­as­ters he attends these days involve food illnesses.
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