With just a little over a year on the job, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has already completed his third "Back To Our Roots" tour, which started out with a visit to Michigan State University.
The three-state tour, which ran from April 3 to April 6, included three stops in Michigan before moving on to Ohio and Kentucky.
Perdue says the RV tour is an opportunity to get out of Washington, D.C., and to hear directly from the American people in the agriculture community. It was the second visit Perdue had made to Michigan in the last few months. He had made five stops in Michigan on Feb. 1 to unveil a website and host listening sessions on the 2018 Farm Bill.
This visit to Michigan started in East Lansing, and was just two days after China imposed a 25% tariff on U.S. pork and other products in retaliation to the Trump administration's steel and aluminum tariffs.
While trade was high on the list for discussion, it was not the only focus of this information-gathering tour.
After making several stops on campus, Perdue talked with a gathering of students, educators and stakeholder at the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, where he assured attendees that President Donald Trump doesn't intend to let China hold farmers "hostage" in an escalating trade dispute with the United States,
"I think what the president's doing on intellectual property theft is the right thing," Perdue said, referencing the motive behind the Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum. "The good thing is that farmers are patriots. They understand that if people aren't playing by the rules, action has to be taken, but they don't want to be the only sacrificial lambs in this trade war."
He also had praise for MSU. "Ag is alive and well — it's flourishing and thriving in places like MSU," he said. "Undergraduate and graduate students and PhD candidates are getting a good practical education in how to go out in the workplace and to innovate, create, and design to develop new products, new procedures, new processes, maybe even new foods for us to have and serve a very growing world and hungry mouths all across the world."
While at the pavilion, Perdue met with a group led by MSU Foundation Professor Bruno Basso, an expert in precision agriculture. Basso provided a drone demonstration while explaining how the drone is outfitted with three sensors that measure plant nutrients, temperature and size. Once collected, growers can use this information to determine appropriate management of their crops.
Perdue started the day off with breakfast at the MSU Conservatory, where he spoke with faculty and MSU stakeholders. The food served highlighted products from MSU's Meat Laboratory, the Dairy Store and the Student Organic Farm.
Laboratory tours followed at the Plant and Soil Sciences Building showcasing the production of high-value specialty food crops and ornamental plants in controlled spaces.
He observed the research being done on vertical farming systems where vertically stacked or inclined surfaces are exposed to LED lighting that can be adjusted to produce plants with desirable size, taste and nutritional characteristics.
Perdue then entered the lab of Mary Hausbeck, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. Graduate students shared work they've been conducting to combat crop diseases in vegetable and greenhouse ornamental industries.
Before moving to the pavilion, Perdue's next to last stop at MSU was at the Beef Cattle Teaching and Research Center to hear of the challenges and new advancements in cattle fertility research.
On to Coldwater
The RV then set a path to the Clemons Food Group pork processing plant in Coldwater.
After a quick tour of the more than 600,000 square-foot processing plant which can process up to 10,000 pigs per day, Perdue met with pork producers, other local farmers and government officials for lunch. In his address, Perdue got to the meat of the matter and reassured producers that agriculture will not bear the brunt of retaliatory measures in trade disputes. "We don't need to maneuver around like it's not happening, it's serious and a reason for concern," he said. Perdue told producers the administration is planning on taking a "wait and see" approach with trade retaliation before mediation measures are made. "We're hoping it can be deescalated very quickly."
Perdue said he's hopeful China and the U.S. can come to a resolution soon, "I've had personal conversations with the president, and he's convinced not to let agriculture bear the brunt of any kind of retaliatory measures."
Harley Sietsema of Allendale raises 41,000 sows and annually markets 800,000 hogs. "It's a very, very big deal for us," he says. Sietsema says he's been significantly impacted financially after China announced retaliatory tariffs on U.S. pork. "We market about 15,000 pigs a week and the market value of my pigs went down somewhere in the area of $20-$25 per head in just the last several days," he explains. Sietsema says his financial success will be in serious trouble if trade disputes don't get corrected soon. "Our business will not survive if we cannot maintain an adequate export business," he says.
Doug Clemens, chairmen of Clemons Food Group, says it was a pretty big day for the secretary to visit the plant. "Agriculture is a very, very important part of the economy of this state but also the rest of the states across this entire country," he says. Clemens is anxious to see how trade deals will impact the pork industry. "Trade with our partners around the world is critically important," he says. "Almost 30% of the pork produced in the U.S. is exported throughout the rest of the world so it's a very, very critical part of pork processing and pork production throughout the whole chain."
China accounts for about 7% of U.S. pork exports, totaling about 1.5% of the U.S. pork supply.
Perdue also made comments about the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 2018 Farm Bill, immigration reform, regulation and dairy margin protection program.
After his visit at Clemens, Perdue headed across town to Mastronardi Produce's Maroa Farms. The 52-acre greenhouse uses grow light technology to provide Michigan-grown tomatoes to Midwest consumers year-round. The greenhouse currently produces "Sunset" brand Angel Sweet grape tomatoes and tomatoes-on-the-vine.
Perdue called the stop fascinating. "What this family's done with the technology of greenhouses and the automation and the year-round growing may be the future of agriculture — certainly from a fruits and vegetables perspective," he said. The quick stop included a tasting of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers grown at the facility. "They had some really great products, I think it's a part of agriculture of the future," Perdue said.
"We are honored to have Secretary Perdue at our Michigan facility," said CEO Paul Mastronardi. "Being able to see our growing methods and technologies, our strict food safety policies, and more importantly, the socio-economic impact our company has in the agriculture sector is incredibly important to us. We are humbled to have such an influential leader include Mastronardi Produce in his tour."
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., Michigan Senate Ag Committee Chairman Joe Hune, USDA Rural Development Michigan director Jason Allen, USDA Farm Service Agency executive director Joel Johnson, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development director Gordon Wenk, Jamie Clover Adams, as well as representatives from Michigan Farm Bureau joined Perdue for his Coldwater stops.
Heslip works as the Michigan Anchor/Reporter for Brownfield Ag News.