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With USDA's coming reorganization, American farmers can expect renewed focus on exports and trade. That has some rural development advocates worried.

Environment Farm Issues Policy Systems

Reorg! As of this writing at 2:30 p.m., ET, on Thursday, Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, is scheduled to formally announce a highly-hyped (ok, highly-hyped in FoodandAgland) United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reshuffle, from the banks of the Ohio River. We’ll bring you details of that announcement as they come in.

The reorg—a move USDA hasn’t made in more than two decades—is evidence of Perdue’s stated commitment to being an “unapologetic advocate and chief salesman” for United States agricultural products worldwide.

And it’s no surprise that Perdue will be speaking from Consolidated Grain and Barge in Cincinnati, Ohio, a grain marketer for export and domestic channels (keyword “export”). Why? The reorg—a move USDA hasn’t made in more than two decades—is evidence of Perdue’s stated commitment to being an “unapologetic advocate and chief salesman” for United States agricultural products worldwide. Indeed, Perdue was instrumental during meetings with President Trump two weeks ago, in cooling down the president’s fired-up, trash-NAFTA agenda. As the Washington Post reported, Perdue presented Mr. Trump with a map of states that would be hardest hit by agricultural and manufacturing losses if he terminated the agreement (areas, of course, that largely supported Trump in the 2016 election).

Details on the agency reshuffle, to date, have been scant. But here’s what we know: a new position, undersecretary for trade, will be created (a role that was required by the 2014 farm bill), which eliminates the position of undersecretary of rural development. This does two things. First, it puts Perdue directly in charge of overseeing economic development programs and foreign agricultural affairs, and second, it folds both farm subsidies and conservation programs into the job description for one undersecretary—responsibilities that are currently handled by two.

On its outward face, the reshuffle looks in line with the Administration’s “skinny budget” lingo, centering largely around improving efficiency, increasing accountability, and the like. But it is also certain to split rural dev and ag export advocates right down the middle in terms of their priorities.

“By demoting Rural Development to simply an “office” under the Secretary, it will lose its Cabinet-level status and the decision-making power that comes with being categorized as a USDA mission area.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) issued a press release in advance of the announcement, expressing its concerns that rural development needs were going to be downgraded by the reshuffle: “In its current position as a core USDA Mission Area overseen by an undersecretary, Rural Development holds a prominent position as part of the USDA Cabinet,” said the organization. “By demoting Rural Development to simply an ‘office’ under the Secretary, it will lose its Cabinet-level status and the decision-making power that comes with being categorized as a USDA mission area. Moreover, the Rural Development Mission Area is huge with many decisions to make on a daily basis, and to assume that the limited number of overworked staff in the Secretary’s office will be better positioned to make and act on these decisions is questionable at best.”

For its part, the National Corn Growers Association, an advocacy organization that represents–you guessed it–corn growers, seemed pleased with what the reshuffle would do to boost demand—and the economics for American farmers. In a statement the association timed with Perdue’s announcement, it said it had “long advocated for a dedicated position at USDA focused on increasing U.S. agricultural exports,” and pushed for its inclusion in the 2014 farm bill.

“In this farm economy, trade is more important than ever to farmers’ incomes.”

“Secretary Perdue’s announcement signals to farm country that the Trump Administration is listening to America’s farmers and ranchers,” it went on to say. “In this farm economy, trade is more important than ever to farmers’ incomes. Overseas markets represent 73 percent of the world’s purchasing power, 87 percent of economic growth, and 95 percent of the world’s customers. Now is the time for U.S. agriculture to fully capitalize on the long-term, increased global demand for our products around the world.”

It’s not entirely clear yet whether food aid, environmental, and land stewardship efforts are at risk of being stymied by the reorg. But we certainly anticipate continued confusion (and anxiety) for farmers over White House messaging on the importance of trade relationships with Mexico and Canada.

Stay tuned.

Kate Cox

Kate Cox covers the secret life of the supply chain as editor for The New Food Economy. In her former life, she was a freelance health reporter for radio and text. Follow her @thekatecox