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USDA Sec. Perdue meets with state ag leaders

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By Bennett Horne

SANTA FE – Agriculture and ranching business leaders from New Mexico were afforded an opportunity to voice their concerns to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Monday as he kicked off a four-state “Back to Our Roots” tour in the state’s capitol.

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Perdue’s tour will take him through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, where he is highlighting support for farmers and food stamps by the Trump administration at a time when, back in Washington, D.C., House Republicans are pushing for a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policies.

“We’ll see how the vote comes out in the House this week,” Perdue said. “I applaud Chairman (Mike) Conoway and the committee for passing really strengthened work requirements for our supplemental nutrition program.

The farm bill in front of Congress at this time could include new work- and job-training requirements for food stamp recipients. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) 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.

“We all recognize that these are transitional programs,” Perdue said. “The generosity and compassion of the American people is a hand up, but not a permanent handout for those people who choose not to work, or at least be trained to work. Twenty hours per week is very reasonable for adults without young children or disabilities.”

As for adults who are capable of working, or able to work, but who choose not to work, Perdue said, “I believe there’s a reasonable limitation of food stamps. Other than that it becomes not a transitional program to independence as envisioned, but a dependency on government that is lifelong, unhealthy and impoverishes their family.”

Perdue started his day visiting Santa Fe National Forest employees during the annual forest management plan consultation meeting.

After, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez led Perdue on a tour of the Santa Fe Watershed facility that provides drinking water to the residents of the city.

The tour made its way to the state Capitol, and an hour-long discussion with leaders in the areas of agriculture and land management, as well as other fields related to agriculture business, followed.

The discussion covered a variety of topics, from available grazing land to regulations covering the management of predators, possible changes to crop insurance, exceptions to environmental regulations and smaller wilderness areas.

“We heard about water rights and how we need to be good neighbors, not only in the Forest Service in name only, but in the way we manage our permits and allotments as far as the way we manage forest service land,” said Perdue. “We want to be extremely respectful of the citizens of the state in which our federal lands are.”

The topic of wilderness lands was a popular one around the table and Perdue said he’s mindful of the importance of the issue.

“Wilderness really keeps land away from people and we have a lot of wilderness,” he said. “The people that I’ve been listening to, particularly in the native tribes, don’t want to see wilderness expanded because it limits the availability and utilization of the land in that way and we have to be very careful as we preserve. We’ve got a lot of wilderness in this nation and a lot of places to go, but in my opinion it does limit a lot of the recreational activities in the healthy forests that we can do.”

Tom Sidwell, president of New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, spoke to the secretary about the need for exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act – exclusions that would help farmers and ranchers push through projects on their properties.

“I know one rancher who has been waiting nine years to put projects on his horse farm and the Forest Service said, ‘Well we don’t have the money to do this. We have a certain amount of money and when we run out of it we can’t do it,’” Sidwell said. “And these are very simple processes. We really don’t need that full-blown analysis. These are things like putting a solar array and solar pump in an existing well. That should be categorically excluded. That could really speed up that process.”

Perdue said the administration is working on speeding up the processes that would help ranchers resolve these delays.

“We’re working really hard on being smart in the eco process,” he said. “But we’re also re-evaluating things through the president’s insistence on one government and moving some of these processes from multi-years down to 12-24 months.”

He said he believes an aggressive approach to issues like this is different from the way things have been done in the past.

“My goal is to be much more aggressive,” he said. “We’ve been little ‘scaredy cats’ over litigation on some of these things. We’ve kind of rolled over. I don’t mind being sued. The government gets sued every day. I got sued every day when I was governor (of Georgia), so bring it on. We’re going to do what we think is right, and if people don’t like that then we can go to court and let (the courts) decide.”

One of the topics Perdue addressed was that of immigration and the impact it has on the state’s agriculture labor force. When asked if his department can make any headway on a topic like this, which might be considered another department’s responsibility, Perdue said, “Some of it is (out of our hands), but we have advocacies in many ways. One of the things I’m most impressed about with this administration is that there is a one-government approach. President Trump, with his permitting requirements, is trying to allow faster, cleaner, easier permitting without damaging environmental rules and regulations.”

He continued, “And we secretaries talk all the time. For instance, in the immigration and labor issues, it’s equities with the Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. But we have an equity in that also because we represent the people who use, and want to use, legal farm labor and I believe it’s our responsibility to help develop a program where they can have workers that are legal and they’re comfortable not having to hide in the shadows.” 

Martinez said she was happy that these agriculture leaders from her state were able to sit down and discuss these issues with Perdue.

“What’s really important is that, under this administration, we have been asked to sit at the table at many issues,” the governor said, “and this was just one of those other issues. 

“Secretary Perdue was so gracious to be here even after having been in Washington with him just a few weeks ago,” Martinez said. “He came to actually visit with those that are impacted and that is something new that we hadn’t experienced with the previous administration, so we’re grateful to be at the table and give our issues, to explain what impacts us on a regular basis.”

While acknowledging there are multiple issues that concern those participating in the discussion, Martinez said the one thing those in attendance could agree on was the need for a “fair balance, an ecosystem that complements itself.”

She continued, “Instead of being overrun with too many elk that overgraze, we need to make sure we’re not blocking cattle that have a proper lease to graze on the land and then blocking the access to water. We need to make sure we have the products that we produce in New Mexico that we can go outside the United States, so that the ranchers and all the folks that work in agriculture can prosper here in the United States. We need to make it easier and make it fair.”

This is Perdue’s fourth “Back to Our Roots” tour since taking office just over a year ago.