Dependable sources of labor and a fresh look at international trade topped the wish list of farmers and other stakeholders when they met with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Friday.
Perdue held a roundtable discussion in Tifton in his role as the head of President Trump’s Task Force on Rural Prosperity. It was the first such roundtable in the South.
“We’re here from the federal government and we’re here not to hurt you,” Perdue joked.
Perdue emphasized the importance of expanding rural broadband internet access. U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter, seated to Perdue’s right, said much the same. Farmers on the panel had their minds elsewhere.
“People say we have plenty of people here in Georgia that want to work. Well, that’s not true,” said Bill Brim, a farmer of some 4,000 acres of vegetables from Tifton. “In 2012 I hired 1,630 domestic workers. None of them stayed more than three days.”
Skeeter McCorkle, who runs a plant nursery in Dearing, agreed.
“At the end of the day, we have to have people to do the work of American agriculture,” McCorkle said.
Perdue said that despite what President Trump has said in the press about immigration, he understands the importance of guest worker visas for farm labor.
“What the president has told me to do is figure out how to have a legal guest worker program in the United States,” Perdue said. “I think you’ll see some of that come about.”
With a renegotiation of NAFTA in the offing, farmers asked for help with things like Mexico pumping cheaply produced fruits and vegetables into U.S. markets and ways to compete with Canada’s heavily state subsidized soft wood timber industry.
Perdue said the Task Force on Rural Prosperity has a report due to Trump in November.