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Input opportunity

Secretary Perdue stops to speak, listen at Tax Day event at Knox Farmers Co-op
Story and photos by Glen Liford 5/24/2018


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue takes a selfie with FFA members at Knox Farmers Co-op while Lee Maddox, left, director of communications for Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, films.
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More than 250 farmers from all over Tennessee came to Knox Farmers Cooperative’s main store at Halls on Tax Day, April 17, to hear remarks from United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and relay their pointed concerns to the secretary.

Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Customer Relations Officer Terry Kelley opened the session by outlining many of the disruptions Tennessee farmers have experienced this spring.

“There are lots of things going on in agriculture and lots of concerns in the state of Tennessee,” explained Kelley. “We’ve lost tobacco markets in recent weeks. We’ve lost dairy markets. We have continued problems with trucking issues across the state. But one of the bright spots in our industry is the change in the tax code.”

As Tennessee Farm Bureau President Jeff Aiken introduced Secretary Perdue, he likewise acknowledged the state was reeling from recent industry developments, but he reminded the group of their common strength.

“To be a farmer, I think you have to be an eternal optimist,” said Aiken. “We are also realists, and we understand that we have some challenges we have to deal with. Profitability is at the top of that list. So while we are waiting for commodity prices to get back where they need to be, if we can save a little bit of what we do have, hopefully this tax reform will be good for agriculture in the future.”

Aiken noted that this stop was the fourth Perdue had made in Tennessee over the last year, and that, he said, demonstrates the secretary’s concern and desire to be a voice for agriculture in Washington, D.C.

As a diversified row crop farmer, dairyman, and former Georgia governor, Perdue said he felt comfortable on the loading dock of the Co-op.

“I’m right at home here at this kind of facility among people like you,” he said. “Because I do consider myself one of you. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be the first veterinarian and really a bona fide farmer in the office of Secretary of Agriculture. I can not only sympathize, but I can also empathize with what is going on now with low commodity prices, particularly with the [developments] in the dairy and tobacco markets. I can take that empathy and relay those fears and concerns to the president and let him hear firsthand what is going on.”

Trade issues were among the topics at the forefront for the concerned crowd. Perdue assured the group, however, that President Trump “has the farmers’ backs.”

“The president has assured me that he will not let [farmers] be the only soldiers in this battle,” said Perdue of the trade and tariffs discussion with China. “The president negotiates in a pretty tough way, and I think he has China’s attention. That’s good because farmers don’t like cheaters, they don’t like stealers, and they don’t like people who don’t play by the rules.”

Perdue said he believes that when all is said and done, the “saber rattling” concerning tariff retaliation may not come into play, and the U.S. could end up with more equitable trade practices with China, Canada, and other countries.

When the discussion turned to the current market dilemma for dairy farmers and tobacco producers, Perdue admitted the situation was complex with no easy solutions.

“We have an oversupply of milk in the dairy industry,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic bullet at USDA. But we are looking at ways we can help producers.”

Opening up international markets for exports of both commodities is one option, he cited. Another would be to get 1-percent or 2-percent flavored milk back into the schools.

This would help demand, said Perdue, “by getting kids to understand and appreciate the value of good wholesome milk for their health, their nutrition, and their taste.”

Bright spots included the recent overhaul of the tax code and President Trump’s emphasis on deregulation.

“We have layered so many regulations on top of [farmers] and on the American economy,” he said, noting that President Trump is challenging the USDA to remove those regulations that impede productivity.

The changes in the tax code, Perdue said, should grow the economy, and agriculture will benefit from that growth.

“When the economy hums, agriculture will come along with it,” he said.

Before concluding, Perdue took questions and comments from the crowd. Some of the farmers, like Jim Riddle, a vegetable grower from Maynardville, offered the secretary praise for “value-added grant programs” that have been invaluable to his farming operation and related business success.

“Without that kind of support, we certainly wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all we have been able to do,” he said.

Jefferson County FFA Chapter Vice President John Ryan Scarlett shared the difficulties his family has experienced with their dairy operation due to the industry’s market challenges. Loudon County dairyman Steve Harrison expressed similar sentiments.

Perdue promised to take those concerns and all the comments back to Washington and share with the president to help shape his understanding of the importance of the farm bill and provide grass roots input on how policy impacts the farmers’ business.

“I’ve never met a good farmer who didn’t want a good crop at a fair price, rather than a government check,” he said. “That’s our goal.”

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