Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks with reporters after testifying on the FY2019 USDA budget request, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited the melon-growing Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford on Monday and the food waste redistribution nonprofit Food Maven in Colorado Springs on Tuesday as part of a four-state tour focusing on farmers, food stamps and international trade and workers.

The former Georgia governor spoke with Colorado Matters by phone from a fast food restaurant in Pueblo this morning. Here are some edited highlights.

Interview Highlights

On the impact of NAFTA negotiations on Colorado farmers:

"Wherever I go, the three major topics are trade, labor, and regulation. Obviously, President Trump is working with China right now with our team. He's instructed our team to make sure China buys more agricultural products, which could be good. Obviously there's concern about NAFTA. We were optimistic at one time, and probably not quite so right now because we're running out of time. But once again, NAFTA is very important to agricultural producers not only in Colorado but across the country. So we hope to get a deal restored with NAFTA. "

On making changes to the H-2A workers visa program:

"(The H-2A visa process is) very cumbersome, very difficult for farmers, particularly smaller farmers, to navigate the process. We're hoping to streamline that process through regulatory issues first, but then hopefully with the new immigration law. The president wants a legitimate, legal farm workforce. We hope to be able to get that where it's even better after that but the H-2A program right now is very difficult to navigate. 

One of the changes that we've discussed and have agreed upon internally interagency is a portal from USDA such as on our website, farmers.gov, where the farmer would go there and place his application. Then that application would be disbursed almost like TurboTax into the Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security and Department of State all at one time, the same information on the same application, and fulfill the requirements there without having to fill out paper applications to each of those agencies and then to wait for a while to know whether they've been received or not."

On his uncertainty that climate change is affecting agriculture:

"Climate has always affected farming. I'm a farm boy. I can remember in 1954 a major drought in middle Georgia almost put my father out of business. In 1994 a major flood put many of our customers at jeopardy. Climate change has always been an issue. The president's not rolled out, back any issues that reflect on how we respond to climate change and the things we can do. It's just it's not at the forefront of being the cause of these things that, we're still doing the things agriculturally."

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: Secretary, thank you for being with us.

Secretary Sonny Perdue: Happy to be here, Ryan. Good to be in Colorado, beautiful day here.

RW: We too have spoken with agricultural producers about some of their concerns lately. We've heard concerns about the future of NAFTA because Mexico and Canada are Colorado's largest trading partners. We hear about immigration policy, how it might affect workers in the field. What have you been hearing?

SP: I've heard exactly the same thing you have. Wherever I go, the three major topics, trade, labor, and regulation and obviously President Trump is working with China right now with our team. He's instructed our team to make sure China buys more agricultural products, which could be good. Obviously there's concern about NAFTA. We were optimistic at one time, and probably not quite so right now because we're running out of time. But once again, NAFTA is very important to agricultural producers not only in Colorado but across the country. So we hope to get a deal restored with NAFTA. Timing is an issue with the elections. We've got some negotiations going on regarding the H-2A program, which would make it a lot more workable than it is now. That's kind of the litany of what I see out here.

RW: The H-2A visa program is a seasonal visa often used by farmers and ranchers. Well lots to run through there.

SP: Sure.

RW: NAFTA in particular, as I said, Mexico and Canada, formidable trading partners with Colorado. Seems like there's a lot of uncertainty there, I think that causes farmers some consternation. What would you tell them?

SP: I think there's legitimate anxiety there about the NAFTA process and the progress. We are telling the president exactly the same thing. He understands, and he's told me to make sure these farmers know that he's going to have their back when it comes to trade. He understands that we export twenty cents out of every farm dollar, and Mexico and Canada are very important. He truly believes that we could've got a better deal. Ambassador Lighthizer is working on that, and we hope to have good news about that soon. Again, the timing is the issue with China, and the EU, and the other negotiations that are going on. We're running out time so we're anxious about that.

RW: On Monday, you were in Rocky Ford visiting Hirakata Farms, run by Michael Hirakata. He grows cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew. We actually spoke with him last year, and he told us most of his workers come from Mexico through the H-2A visa program, which we've mentioned. He says he just can't find local workers. He had this message for President Trump.

Michael Hirakata: In this area, there's not very many. Some of the workers around here, it's hard work. Some people won't last the whole day. Very rarely do they last more than a week because like I said, it's very hard work. This country needs workers that are willing to work and do the work that some people aren't willing to do in America. I hope that he streamlines the H-2A program and we get a better program to work with.

SP: That's a very timely quote. We talked to Michael and his family exactly about those things yesterday. The young woman attorney who's working with us on labor issues was with me, Kristi Boswell. She's been in negotiations with the Department Labor, Homeland Security and Department of State in order to streamline this process. It's very cumbersome, very difficult for farmers, particularly smaller farmers, to navigate the process. We're hoping to streamline that process through regulatory issues first, but then hopefully with new immigration law the president wants a legitimate, legal farm workforce. We hope to be able to get that where it's even better after that but the H-2A program right now is very difficult to navigate. We had a great conversation with Michael on his farm there. They're a fine family and great producers.

RW: What's an example of a change that you could make to the H-2A program to make it better?

SP: One of the changes that we've discussed and have agreed upon internally interagency is a portal from USDA such as on our website, farmers.gov, where the farmer would go there and place his application. Then that application would be disbursed almost like TurboTax into the Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of State all at one time, the same information on the same application, and fulfill the requirements there without having to fill out paper applications to each of those agencies and then to wait for a while to know whether they've been received or not.

RW: What do you think will happen to the number of H-2A visas, their availability?

SP: I think, again, that's going to require a comprehensive immigration bill. Chairman Goodlatte, Judiciary and House, has a bill that would cap them at 500,000. Most people don't think that's enough, but if the program is effective, Michael is exactly right. We've got statistics that show that out of 20,000 openings, we have domestic applications of less than 50, and usually as he said, they don't stay very long. So we have a real huge demand and we're actually going to get down to either importing this legal farm labor, or importing our food.

RW: Michael Hirakata's farm is in Otero County on Colorado's southeastern plains, and they're in extreme drought, weather extremes are expected to become more common because of climate change. The Trump Administration has rolled back a lot of the previous White House's efforts to reverse climate change. How concerned are you about how climate affects farmers and ranchers?

SP: Climate has always affected farming. I'm a farm boy. I can remember in 1954 a major drought in middle Georgia almost put my father out of business. In 1994 a major flood put many of our customers at jeopardy. Climate change has always been an issue. The president's not rolled out, back any issues that reflect on how we respond to climate change and the things we can do. It's just it's not at the forefront of being the cause of these things that, we're still doing the things agriculturally.
Michael had a great example of using plastic to conserve water. He's a very efficient use of water on that farm, using in a way cover crops and other things, and leaving no-till planting. Those types of things are still tactics that farmers are using to deal with the vagaries of weather.

RW: But it sounds like you dispute the notion that people are contributing to climate change?

SP: Well, that's not really the issue. That's not really the issue of what the cause is. It's what do we do about it, and that's what I'm telling you is that we're doing everything we can as good cover crops, no-till farming, and efficient use of water that would make sense over those kind of things.

RW: Another stop for you in Colorado is with the folks at FoodMaven in Colorado Springs, which sees the huge amounts of wasted food in this country, maybe because it's slightly imperfect, and finds a market for it, often at a discount. Why did you want to meet with FoodMaven?

SP: Well because when we leave multiple millions and billions of dollars of food unharvested because they're imperfect, and they're not going to be marketable through our retail chains, Maven has an interesting concept of recovering this food. The food waste, we're very interested in food waste and how we can feed more people by using food better, using food more efficiently, whether it's recovering food that's served in a healthy, sanitary and safe way; whether we are recovering harvests that may be imperfect. But FoodMaven has an interesting entrepreneurial concept that I want to learn more about, looking for ideas of how USDA can encourage a more efficient use of our food, so we can feed more people more efficiently.

RW: You see a lot of waste as well in the food supply?

SP: We do indeed. There's no doubt, and many people, I think statistics bear out, that it's probably 30 to 40 percent of the food supply, and if you go into restaurants lately and seen the waste there, go in to schools and see the waste there. We were in Las Vegas a few months ago, and saw where there was a food recovery process there that went to animals, but we think there are many ways, and FoodMaven may be one of those ways that we can again recover food that may not have been used, food going out of date going to food banks, and we just need a strategic approach to how we can use food better. And that again you talked about the climate, that helps lower the footprint, and if we can use more, and we have to produce less, then that's helpful.

RW: Secretary, thank you for your time.

SP: Thank you