WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., says the biggest issue facing farm country these days is clear — international trade.
“That’s what farmers and ranchers are concerned about,” Johanns said. “They really are looking forward to getting a resolution with China especially.”
Between serving as Nebraska’s governor and representing the state in the U.S. Senate, Johanns was secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush.
Johanns spoke with The World-Herald on Friday after meeting with current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and three other former secretaries — John Block, Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman.
Tom Vilsack and Mike Espy had other commitments and couldn’t attend, Johanns said.
Perdue invited the bipartisan group of his predecessors to share some thoughts on the current state of affairs, Johanns said.
“He asked, ‘What do you think we’re doing right, what do you think we’re doing wrong?’ ”
Johanns told the secretary that he thinks the Agriculture Department is doing many things well and noted that Congress recently passed a farm bill that largely preserves current policies — providing some much-needed continuity.
But he also talked about the need to address trade disruptions by finalizing a replacement for NAFTA and hammering out agreements with Japan, China and the European Union.
Soybean prices in particular have been crushed by the trade dispute as China has greatly pulled back on the amount of soybeans it buys from the U.S.
Johanns noted that surpluses of soybeans are so large that an announcement of a Chinese purchase this week produced little in the way of a price increase. The Nebraska Farm Bureau recently released a study indicating that the state’s producers have taken as much as a $1 billion hit from the trade disputes, a blow only somewhat offset by the administration’s program to offer direct subsidy payments and buy up some surpluses.
“It’s been a tough market for the soybean folks,” Johanns said. “They have taken a beating. The program that the Trump administration announced helps, but it isn’t a solution to a good open marketplace.”
On the other hand, Johanns said, the global corn market is looking better, and he expects a lot more corn acres to be planted next year.
He added that farmers and ranchers overall seem to be willing to give President Donald Trump more time to work on better trade deals.
“When I’m out there talking to people in agriculture, there still seems to be a lot of patience,” Johanns said.
Another question Perdue put to the former secretaries: what advice did they have on how to bridge the divide between rural and urban America?
“That one gets a little tougher, but I did tell him the one thing we all have in common across the board is we all need to eat,” Johanns said. “So I said doing everything you can to deliver that message, that agriculture is enormously important to the future of this country, is going to help to bridge that divide.”