Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visits central Arkansas, offers assurances
Written by: Stephen Steed
Published by: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, with two appearances Wednesday in central Arkansas, made a lot of assurances but no promises while speaking to farmers affected by a range of issues.
Perdue and Gov. Asa Hutchinson spent about an hour at a “town hall” meeting that attracted about 100 people at the headquarters of the state Department of Agriculture. Many were farmers; others were “stakeholders” in agriculture, including conservationists and foresters, all of whom were invited well ahead of the gathering.
For rice farmers and marketers, the U.S. will work harder to include the grain in any future deals with Japan, Perdue said. A trade agreement reached last week between the two nations didn’t include rice. “It [rice] wasn’t left out,” Perdue said. “[A deal involving rice] was just unobtainable. … We won’t give up on that. There are other hungry, rice-eating countries across the world.”
Perdue said the United Kingdom, depending on its departure from the European Union, could be a major market for rice. Arkansas is the nation’s largest rice producer.
For farmers stuck with thousands of acres not planted this spring because of heavy rain and occasional floods, Perdue said there’s a possibility of financial help beyond crop insurance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined earlier this year that prevented planting acreage wouldn’t be eligible for the Market Facilitation Program, which this year is sending some $14 billion to farmers hurt by the U.S. trade war with China, primarily soybean farmers.
That could change soon, depending on the outcome of meetings this week with the federal Office of Management and Budget, Perdue said. He said he wants the tariff-relief program to continue, if no deal with China is reached, but said, “We’d rather have trade than aid, right?”
Arkansas had nearly 1.3 million acres in prevented planting this year, fifth-most in the nation, according to USDA figures released in August.
Wednesday’s was Perdue’s third visit to Arkansas since becoming agriculture secretary in January 2017. He observed Arkansas flooding that spring and visited with farmers at the Governor’s Mansion in 2018.
Before the appearance with Hutchinson in Little Rock, Perdue spent an hour at Vantage Midsouth Precision Agriculture in Carlisle, where he visited with about 20 people, primarily Vantage employees, but also a couple of farmers and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., whose district includes Lonoke County.
Perdue defended the trade war, setting aside the financial losses suffered by farmers as temporary. A deal with the Chinese, coupled with the proposed new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that hasn’t yet been approved by Congress, will benefit farmers in the long run, Perdue said.
Both Perdue and Crawford said the Chinese have been stealing American technology and research, including technology designed for farmers, for decades.
Chris East, owner of Vantage Midsouth, said the Chinese theft of technology behind drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, led him to get out of the drone-production business about a year and a half ago. Farmers, he said, turned to cheaper drones rather than more expensive but better-built drones made at Vantage.
Crawford also cited the indictments of Chinese citizens in 2013 and 2018 on charges that they were stealing rice used for research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart and a research facility in Kansas.
Perdue agreed, saying, “They’ve kept their thumbs on the scale.”
Perdue, who grew up in the grain business in Georgia and isn’t related to the family behind the Perdue Farms poultry business, also got a crash course in the effort to expand Arkansas peanut production. Arkansas farmers planted some 35,000 acres of peanuts this year, about 10,000 more acres than last year.
Jason Felton and Ramey Stiles, farmers from Marianna, told Perdue of farmers’ investment of some $70 million to build a market in Marianna as well as Arkansas’ first shelling plant, in Jonesboro. Both are under construction.
Georgia is the nation’s largest peanut producer by far, and its soil has the right mix of dirt and sand for peanut production. “I was wondering if you have enough sand in the soil,” Perdue said.
Felton assured Perdue that Arkansas soil, especially that in Arkansas counties east of Crowley’s Ridge and along the Mississippi River, has enough sand for good production of peanuts.