WASHINGTON, D.C. — Trade and labor are the two major issues impacting the produce industry, and those in the space should push Congress to pass Trump administration deals and reforms, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference on Wednesday.
In his keynote address, Perdue walked the audience through the administration's positions on several trade deals and a temporary guest work program.
"It is really important for you to show up and really show out," he told the audience. "Your personal stories really matter. While the administration talks to Congress, your stories are the most powerful that matter there among the members and among the administration."
Trade across the world has been a touchy subject in the food and beverage industry during the last two years. Producers have faced rising tariffs and waited for new agreements with countries including Japan, China, Mexico and Canada. Although critics have questioned Trump's trade methods, Perdue called the president agriculture's "best advocate" and gave updates on several trade deals.
"The only reason I can think of someone wanting to vote against [USMCA] would be not to give the administration a win. That is the wrong thing for America, the wrong motive in which to vote on a trade deal, so hopefully you all can be influential if you agree with me and I hope you can advocate for that with your members."
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
Last year, the largest countries in North America proposed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which would replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement if ratified by lawmakers in each of the three countries. So far, only Mexico has approved the agreement.
Perdue said that although the agriculture industry didn't get everything it wanted in the agreement, it is "overwhelmingly a better deal."
"We didn't go backwards on anything," he said. "I think it is very important that we get that ratified sooner rather than later."
He said the ball is in the court of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's, D-Calif., to get the deal passed, and pushed the produce industry to continue advocating for its passage. United Fresh, which represents the produce industry nationwide, endorsed USMCA last year.
"The only reason I can think of someone wanting to vote against it would be not to give the administration a win," he said. "That is the wrong thing for America, the wrong motive in which to vote on a trade deal, so hopefully you all can be influential if you agree with me and I hope you can advocate for that with your members."
When it comes to China, Trump has defended his escalating tit-for-tat tariff strategy. Perdue said Trump is working on an agreement with China but as of now, the trade "situation is what it is."
"President Trump is standing up to some of the practices that China has been engaged in for a number of years," he said. "We want them to be a good customer, but we want them to play by the rules everybody else has to play by."
The trade war between the U.S. and China has lasted for more than a year, hurting businesses in the food and beverage industry along the way. Talking to reporters after the keynote, Perdue said the U.S. is working toward a deal and wants high China import targets for major agricultural products.
"The targets are everything and as much as they can. They are a huge consumer, they import a lot of their food substances and we think they have got a lot of room to import U.S. products. You know the big ones, we're talking about soybeans and pork,” he said.
On Japan, Perdue said he was "happy" with the announcement at G-7 that Trump and Japan reached a trade deal in principle. Perdue told the United Fresh audience the agreement may be officially signed at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
Besides trade, immigration has also been a pressing issue in the industry. Perdue said he has been working with Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the president who is leading the administration's effort on reviewing legislation on immigration reform, to advocate for a legal guest worker program. This would allow foreign citizens to temporarily work in the U.S.
"We have people that don't want to become citizens, that don't want to immigrate to the United States. They want the freedom to come for economic freedom to provide for their families, to be able to go and come free back and forth to their jobs, commute from Central, South America, Mexico into the United States to work, and help us produce food for the world, and go back to their families," Perdue said.
Some have criticized the efforts to expand the legal guest worker program as inconsistent with Trump's views on immigration. Trump told a Republican gathering in April, "Our country's full. You can’t come in, I'm sorry," The New York Times reported.
After U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided seven Mississippi chicken processing plants and arrested 680 people last month, the National Chicken Council told Trump and congressional leaders that processors need better methods to verify who is legally authorized to work in the U.S.
Some processors are looking to automation to augment their workforce, like at the recently opened Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center near its headquarters in Arkansas. But Perdue told conference attendees those advancements aren’t going to fix the workforce problem now, so they should lobby for this program.
"I know many of you are working on robotics and that could come sooner or later, but it is not going to come soon enough," he said.