While acknowledging that “it’s tough out there,” especially for younger farmers, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressed optimism Friday about improving the farm economy by successfully completing trade negotiations with China and winning congressional approval of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

“If we can get a deal with China.....I think it can be a bonanza for American agriculture,” Perdue told over 9,000 registered guests attending the annual Commodity Classic in Orlando. The former Georgia governor was warmly received by the crowd – he received two standing ovations and his speech was interrupted at least 15 times by applause.

The crowd’s reception was vastly different than last year’s Classic, when many corn growers in the audience were concerned about his support for ethanol.

“What a difference a year makes,” Perdue said. “Last year, y’all hadn’t figure out if you liked me yet.”

Perdue talked about farm bill implementation but spent much of his speech talking about trade. He discussed the potential to sell more soybeans to China, but also a “broad array” of U.S. farm products including rice, beef, ethanol, tree nuts and more.

Perdue said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for a final deal but didn’t want to raise expectations too high.

“It will be over successfully when President Xi and President Trump meet, or it will be over detrimentally,” he said, referring to an expected summit between the two world leaders later this month.

At the same time, Perdue talked about the overall importance of trade and urged Congress to ratify the U.S., Mexico and Canada trade agreement – “not just for the farm economy but for the American economy.”

The leaders of both Mexico and Canada, along with many U.S. commodity groups, have called for President Trump to remove the Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum now that the USMCA agreement has been reached. Perdue assured the crowd he was working toward that end with U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer.

“I expected the 232 tariffs to come off when that agreement was concluded,” Perdue said. “If we can work from a quota system rather than a tariff system and get the tariffs back off, we can really go to town with ag exports.”

Perdue also assured the crowd that the Trump administration was also working to expand other global markets.

“Let's pray for a great China resolution but understand that it's not our only market. Ambassador Lighthizer is committed to getting a deal with Japan that is equal to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or better,” he said.

Perdue also shed some additional light on how he and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler came to issue conflicting statements on the status of a vapor pressure waiver needed to allow E15 to be sold year around.

Perdue told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday morning that EPA would be unable to finish the rule in time for the summer driving season, but EPA issued a statement shortly thereafter contradicting him. Then, Wheeler on Wednesday afternoon also affirmed that the E15 decision would be finalized in time. On Thursday, the full Senate voted to confirm Wheeler as EPA administrator. 

Perdue said Friday that the confusion occurred when then-Acting Administrator Wheeler told him two to three weeks ago that his agency wouldn’t make the June 1 deadline for implementing new rules to enable E15 sales because they were behind after the 35-day government shutdown. However, Wheeler’s staff  “found a way to make it work” by the June 1 deadline during Wheeler's Senate confirmation process, Perdue said. 

“I’m going to encourage him to send a signal out to the industry that it will be done” so they can plan ahead, Perdue added. He described Wheeler as “a friend who wants to protect environment but also protect an endangered species - the American farmer.”

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