Trump Still to Decide Agricultural Nominee

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Jan 09, 2017

With just weeks remaining before the presidential inauguration, Donald Trump has yet to name a nominee to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the lead agency dealing with food policy. In the two months since the election, the president-elect selected 13 of 15 cabinet posts, from the departments of State to Justice to Health and Human Services. But deciding the USDA candidate has been left to the end, Bloomberg notes, though "was most connected to rural voters who helped propel him into office."

Trump will be inaugurated Jan. 20.

The USDA doesn't seem to be getting the attention the rural groups might like it to, according to Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, the second-biggest U.S. farmer group. "Folks in agriculture and rural America feel like they delivered for this president, and they just want there to be more attention," Johnson was quoted as saying.

However, the agriculture secretary tends to be among the later cabinet choices made by new presidents, though this time, it's later than usual. President Barack Obama's appointment of Tom Vilsack, who still holds the job, was made on Dec. 17, 2008. President George W. Bush, whose transition was delayed by a contested vote recount in Florida, made his selection on Dec. 20, 2000. Bill Clinton chose his agriculture chief on Dec. 24, 1992.

Candidates are being vetted, notes Trump spokesman Sean Spicer, and Trump has interviewed almost two dozen candidates for the job, spending up to five hours with one of them. He might be using the candidates to teach him the many intricacies of the agricultural industry. One candidate mentioned is former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue while others include former lieutenant governor of California Abel Maldonado, former Texas A&M University president Elsa Murano, former U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla of Texas and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. The agency employs about 100,000 people, directs about $140 billion in programs and has a presence in every U.S. county.

Agriculture and Veterans Affairs are the two cabinet posts yet to be filled. Among seven additional senior positions, Trump has named all but his chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Reports also say rancher groups have issued a list of their policy priorities, including a call for more USDA money to manage wildlife predators that harm sheep and cattle herds. 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. There's no end to the other rural issues Trump will now have to decide.
Trump’s nominee also will need to deal with a new farm bill as the current law expires on Sept. 30, 2018. Much of the spending authorized by the legislation goes to nutrition programs including food stamps and farm subsidies.

Bloomberg said Trump's election victory was partly due to strong support from rural voters that wanted an economic turnaround. U.S. farm income has dropped for three straight years to the lowest since 2009, and debt levels have climbed. Trump hasn't said much about how he’d change farm policy, other than about lessening the pressure on environmental regulation, though some of his statements about trade and immigration could have major implications for agricultural businesses.

A major exporter of crops and other farm commodities, the U.S. could see the pace of goods shipments come to a crawl if Trump follows through with a pledge to reshape trading relationships with China and other countries. And if he imposes punitive tariffs on imports. Any retaliation could prompt a trade war that might erode global commodity prices.

Should immigration laws be enforced more strictly, as Trump has pledged, farm businesses may face labor shortages. Undocumented workers comprise a substantial chunk of employees in U.S. agriculture.

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