Polite conversation was the norm for the most part, but it didn’t take long for “the elephant in the room” to appear: the Trump administration’s tariffs and trade war with China.

Two dozen regional farm leaders joined an hour-long discussion with U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue at Profinium Bank in Mankato Wednesday, hosted by First District Rep. Jim Hagedorn. The primary message? Farmers in southern Minnesota are hurting.

“Everything is pretty much tied together,” he noted.

Perdue said he understands “it’s tough times out there now.”

“There’s a lot of emotional stress and economical stress,” said Perdue, a Trump administration appointee and Georgia farmer and veterinarian. He was also Georgia governor 2003 to 2011.

Nicollet County farmer Jim Compart was among those also advocating for Congress to formally approve the renegotiated trade pact with Mexico and Canada, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Compart said 40 percent of U.S. farm exports are with our northern and southern neighbors.

But the Nicollet area hog producer also stressed that in light of the trade war with China, USDA officials need to strengthen other trade agreements. The Trump administration bowed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with a dozen other trade nations.

“We have to get some bilateral agreements (with other countries),” Compart stressed.

Perdue said those efforts continue.

“We’re hopeful we can get a deal this fall with Japan,” he said. “We probably got too reliant on China. And the President said ‘no more.’”

But concerns over the Trump administration’s ongoing tariff wars with China remained predominant in the Mankato talks. Eric Fisher, of AGCO Manufacturing in Jackson, said early steel tariffs and the subsequent retaliation by China continue to hurt.

“Anything we can do to expedite that will be helpful,” he said.

Several farm leaders also stressed concerns over the growing labor shortage in southern Minnesota, particularly in the agricultural sector. And it comes on the heels of one of the nation’s largest labor raids ever early in the day, with a reported 680 undocumented farm workers at a Koch plant in Morton, Mississippi ,arrested and likely to be deported.

Perdue, during a brief press conference with regional media, had heard of the raid but didn’t want to comment much until he heard all details. But he expressed surprise and hinted he disagreed with the action by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE).

“I’m disappointed,” Perdue said. “I’ve talked to the President about this.”

Regional concerns and praise

Prior to the late afternoon roundtable discussion, Nicollet County dairy and crop farmers Paul and Howard Swenson expressed their concerns over current farm prices and issues.

“We just want an end to it. Now,” said Paul Swenson. He emphasized how the tariffs and trade wars have hit all aspects of agriculture — dairy, crop, livestock.

Howard Swenson, a former Nicollet area state representative, said action is needed on the federal level on both tariffs and trade. He said new trade agreements have been slow to be approved and “Congress needs to bring it up for a vote” and formally pass a renegotiated agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Later, during formal discussion with Perdue, Paul Swenson was firm in relating concerns over the loss of dairy farmers in Minnesota.

“We’re losing farmers every week,” he said. “We’ve lost a tremendous part of our industry.”

While Perdue expressed empathy for the end of small farm operations, he added that there’s not been much of a drop in the number of dairy cows, as producers grow larger.

“It’s just got much more expensive to farm,” Perdue noted. “There’s an economy of scale.”

But some, like Mike Drummer of Mankato, praised Perdue and the efforts behind the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which in part opened up the hemp industry, calling it “a watershed moment.”

“Southern Minnesota has been a hot spot in the industry,” said Drummer, who is an investor in a Waseca-based hemp facility. “It’s an ever-increasing industry.”

Perdue raised some skepticism over whether there will be sufficient markets for the rapidly growing hemp industry. Drummer expressed confidence that new products will also emerge.

“It’s the wild, wild west in the industry right now,” Drummer said.

Hagedorn: Quiet, behind the scenes

Hagedorn, while serving as host to the Mankato discussion, talked little, allowing Perdue to answer and visit with farm leaders. But he said his goal is to help “preserve our rural way of life.”

“It’s been tough for five, six years,” Hagedorn said. He, along with Perdue, said the Trump administration is right to put pressure on China and that federal officials are “moving forward on the trade agreements.”

“We’re doing everything possible to move these things through,” he said.

But that “elephant in the room” also appeared early in the day at the annual Farmfest show in rural Morgan. Gary Wertish, a Renville area farmer and president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, was the first to coin the phrase in regard to the Trump administration tariffs and trade war with China.

“This is causing long-term, devastating damage to not only farmers, but rural communities,” Wertish told Perdue, who also attended Farmfest.

Others painted a similar picture of the Minnesota farm landscape.

“Things are going downhill and downhill very quickly,” said Brian Thalmann, a McLeod County farmer.

And Joel Schreurs of Tyler, a board member on both state and U.S. soybean grower’s associations, questioned whether the China market would ever return.

“How are you going to keep the farmers farming?” he asked Perdue. The exports aren’t going to be there. We’ve worked a long time to develop these markets, and we’re going to lose this market share.”

Perdue said at Farmfest and again in Mankato that he remains optimistic.

“I think it will get done and President Trump wants it to get done,” Perdue said. “I wish I could tell you when.”

Reach Dana Melius at 507-276-4077.

St. Peter Herald, Waseca County News and Le Sueur County News managing editor. Email at editor@stpeterherald.com. Call at 507-931-8567.

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