Trump is ‘bombastic’ but might keep NAFTA, ag secretary says in visit to Modesto

John Holland of the Modesto Bee |

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue heard two main messages from farmers in Sunday’s visit to Modesto — keep export barriers down and lighten up on regulation.

President Donald Trump’s top farm official heard concerns also about labor and water supplies in a question-and-answer session at the Modesto Junior College West Campus.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor, said he shares the Republican president’s disdain for overregulation. Audience members said they want to see safe food and a healthy environment, but not federal rules that go too far.

Trump has worried some farmers with his proposal to redo the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has boosted agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada.

“We want you to know that these trade agreements are vital to our industry,” said Dave Phippen, an almond grower and processor near Ripon. He noted that about 70 percent of the California crop is exported.


Rien Doornenbal, a dairy farmer near Escalon, said NAFTA has raised dairy exports from virtually zero to 15 percent of production.

Perdue said he has tried to show Trump the importance of NAFTA. He added that his boss is “very bombastic sometimes on things that he believes … but he also has the essence of a good leader who is willing to listen.”

The secretary said farmers could benefit from Republican tax proposals, including one that would phase out the estate tax.

Perdue grew up on a dairy farm in Georgia and has worked as a veterinarian. He said farmers are stewards of the land and do not need heavy regulation to keep it in good shape. “Just leave me alone; let me grow stuff,” he said.


Joey Airosa, a dairy farmer in Tulare County, urged federal action to expand water supplies to avoid what happened in the recent drought, when homes near Porterville went dry. He also noted the low milk prices that have long plagued farmers.

“We play a vital role, and I think you respect that,” Airosa told the secretary.

Perdue also heard about Modesto-based farmer John Duarte’s battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over his plowing of a wheat field in a way that the agency claimed was destructive to wetlands. The case in Tehama County was settled earlier this year, but Duarte said Trump’s Justice Department missed a chance to drop it. The proposed fine could have wiped out his main business, Duarte Nursery in Hughson, he said

The discussion was sponsored by the California Farm Bureau Federation and moderated by President Paul Wenger, who grows walnuts and almonds west of Modesto. He urged Perdue to work for immigration reform that assures a steady supply of farm workers.

Perdue met briefly with the media after the session. He said he supports a bill that would speed up logging to reduce wildfire threats in national forests, which are part of the USDA.

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