The U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) Spring Conference, held in Arlington, Virginia, was highlighted by appearances from Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
“I want to thank you being in town and for telling your good story about trade,” Roberts told USMEF members. “I want – and I expect – to hear from the meat export sector as we continue down this path, to get a good farm bill. You’re great partners and you do a wonderful job. You folks have really played a very instrumental and important role in shaping rural states. You’ve been an essential part of the rural economy and advising me on issues that affect our daily lives and pocketbooks out in farm country.”
Roberts expressed concern about the Trump administration’s plans to renegotiate NAFTA, but said the presence of recently confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue gives him confidence that the market access gains NAFTA provided for U.S. agricultural exports will be maintained.
“I swear to goodness he’s been the most active secretary in his first three or four weeks of anybody that I’ve ever seen,” Roberts said of Perdue. “He was sworn in just in time to play a very critical role in convincing President Trump not to withdraw completely from NAFTA. He had the backing, by the way, of Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson and Wilbur Ross, our commerce secretary – I know this for a fact because I was involved in that – as well our new U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer.”
Roberts spoke with cautious optimism about negotiations to reopen China to U.S. beef – a market that has been closed since the December 2003 BSE case.
“I was very heartened to see the news on the agreement made with China to allow U.S. beef access to nearly 1.4 billion Chinese customers,” he said. “Details of that agreement still need to be finalized and we hope that this time U.S. beef and beef products will be granted true market access.”
Roberts also assured USMEF members that he strongly supports USDA programs designed to expand international demand for U.S. agricultural products.
“The Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program are certainly great examples of programs that work,” he said. “We at least ought to have the same level of funding, and really ought to have more, but we’re going to try to preserve that. Expanding markets around the world is one of the surest ways for producers to feel more secure by creating more demand and increasing global access to U.S. meat, grains and other commodities, so the ag sector can begin to climb out of this rough patch.”
Speaking after Roberts, Duvall also praised Secretary Perdue and said he believes the Trump administration’s “tough talk” about re-negotiating NAFTA is simply a way to get key trading partners to the table. He also encouraged everyone in the agricultural industry to remain engaged in the processes taking place in the nation’s capital.
A third-generation farmer from Georgia, Duvall spent 30 years as a dairy farmer and today raises beef cattle and poultry. Prior to being elected AFBF president, he served as president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, where he came to know Perdue, the former governor of Georgia.
“He understands agriculture and he’s a great administrator,” Duvall said of Perdue. “He is only the fourth secretary of agriculture – out of the 30 that we’ve had – to actually have farmed as an adult. He’s very familiar with what it takes to farm, and what it requires.”
Duvall said he considers the current situation in Washington to be possibly the greatest opportunity in his lifetime to make a long-term difference for U.S. agriculture and rural America, helping to build “a future for children and grandchildren who want to do what we do.”
To keep farmers and ranchers engaged, Duvall wants to speak personally with as many producers as possible to help them understand the importance of their involvement.
“Since November, when the farmers and rural America came out and elected this president, they began to relax,” explained Duvall. “Farmers are sitting at home thinking farm organizations, their county Farm Bureau or their commodity group is just going to take care of their problems. I’m telling you that if that’s what our farmers think, we’re in for a disaster. We’re in for a train wreck. We cannot afford to let them disengage from this process. They made a difference in November, but that’s just the beginning of our chore. It’s not the end.”
The conference concluded Friday with a panel discussion on demand trends for red meat in China and Mexico, featuring insights from Joel Haggard, USMEF senior vice president for the Asia Pacific and two senior staff members who oversee USMEF programs in Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic – Regional Director Oscar Ferrara and Marketing Director Gerardo Rodriguez.
At its closing business session, the USMEF board of directors approved a resolution supporting continued funding for the USDA Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program. The resolution encouraged organizations that advocate for U.S. agriculture to make funding these programs a legislative priority, noting their proven track record for bolstering U.S. exports and delivering positive returns for the U.S. economy.
High-resolution photos for use with this release: