The American Heartland largely carried the 2016 Presidential Election for Donald Trump. The Trump campaign reached out to and appealed to farmers and agricultural communities, promising a resurgence in U.S. farming. However, despite the campaign’s commitment, the question still remains what difference President Trump will truly be able to make in the agriculture sector.
Secretary of Agriculture was one of President Trump's last cabinet announcements and his choice for the job, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, has still yet to be confirmed by the Senate. This does not land solely on the shoulders of the Trump Administration, as the Senate Agriculture Committee was slow to schedule Governor Perdue's nomination hearing. And though Perdue’s nomination has since been voted out of committee favorably by a voice vote, his nomination has yet to be considered by the larger Senate, which has been consumed with other priorities requiring floor time. Insiders report the Trump Administration has done little to help push Perdue's confirmation through the Senate, short of relying on Perdue to do his own advocacy inside the halls of Congress. With the Senate unable to confirm Perdue’s nomination last week before its scheduled two-week recess, it now certain that Perdue will not be confirmed until the end of April at the earliest.
The agriculture community ran into its first big test with the administration shortly after President Trump took office. Just weeks into the job, President Trump announced a tough crackdown on undocumented immigrants, many of who work in the agricultural space. Undocumented workers make up approximately 30%-60% of U.S. farm labor. As a consequence of this crackdown, small and large farms alike worry that mass deportation will deplete their workforce. Last week, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition led a letter, signed by over 70 other agricultural groups, to the President urging for a more stable, long-term immigration reform policy. In part, the letter says the labor shortage “negatively impacts economic competitiveness, local economies and jobs.” They specifically pointed to the current guest worker visa program, asking for an overhaul of the current "cumbersome and dysfunctional" H-2A visa program.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal poses another challenge for the agriculture industry. The agricultural economy greatly benefited from reduced trade barriers created by NAFTA and many worry that pulling out of the TPP will cause damage to agricultural interests. President Trump's nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, told the Senate during his confirmation hearing that he plans to prioritize the agriculture economy in trade deals, specifically targeting Japan as a partner with whom the U.S. can increase agriculture exports. With the farm economy in decline, some experts worry that Trump's brash international politics may force key nations to import their crops from countries other than the U.S., something Mexico has already signaled they may consider.
These changes and uncertainty come at a critical time. Next year, policy makers will be forced to tackle the expiring Farm Bill. That debate will place America's farms at the forefront of the White House and Congress' attention.