Agriculture secretary tours Rockies amid farm-aid debate
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue kicked off a four-state tour Monday in New Mexico to highlight Trump administration priorities on support for farmers and food stamps as House Republicans on Capitol Hill push for a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy.
Stakes are high for New Mexico as Congress considers a farm bill that could include new work and job training requirements for food stamp recipients. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food aid to about one-fifth of residents in New Mexico, or more than 210,000 households that mostly include children. Democrats in Congress are warning that work-requirement changes could reduce benefits to many who need them.
“The food nutrition benefits are very large for New Mexico because we have a very large percentage of the population that depend on school meals and senior meals,” said Terry Bruner, co-founder of grant-writing consultancy Grow New Mexico and former state director of rural development for the Agriculture Department.
Vising the New Mexico Statehouse, Perdue applauded Republican welfare-reform efforts.
“The generosity and compassion of the American people is a hand-up but not a permanent handout for those people who chose not to work,” he said. “Twenty hours a week is very reasonable for adults without young children or disabilities. That’s who we are talking about.”
Perdue visited Department of Agriculture employees at the headquarters of the Santa Fe National Forest and later joined Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for a tour of public land that provides drinking water to residents of the state capital city.
Perdue held an hour-long discussion with an appreciative audience of about a dozen agricultural and ranching business leaders who urged the Cabinet secretary to shore up federal support for farmers through changes to crop insurance, exceptions to environmental regulations and smaller wilderness areas.
The group also voiced concern about President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration enforcement and the U.S. trade deficit with China, citing the potential workforce interruptions and reliance on Chinese markets.
“We need to keep those markets open if we want to feed the world,” said Jim Berlier, of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts.
In southern New Mexico, Phillip Arnold, a pecan farmer and trader in Las Cruces, said a steady increase in sales to China over the past decade has propped up prices on the U.S. market — helping his family business and neighboring farms.
Perdue said he shared concerns about trade wars. “We need to keep those markets open if we want to feed our ranchers,” he said.
The House bill crafted by Republicans also would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit and land conservation — and includes rural development programs designed to extend broadband internet services and improve rural water and irrigation systems.
David Sanchez, vice president of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association that represents about 16,000 ranchers and farmers, said he simply wants the secretary to understand how much families rely on public grazing rights and Dust Bowl-era soil conservation programs.
“It’s important for him to come out and see what’s happening with the health of the forests, to completely understand,” he said.
Perdue’s travel plans this week also take him to Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, including a visit to his agency’s storage and research facility for endangered plants, seed and genetic material for livestock in Fort Collins, Colorado.