WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2017 - Another week has gone by and there’s still no decision from President-elect Donald Trump on who will be the next agriculture secretary, but there is activity on the transition front. Two new names have been added to Trump’s USDA transition “landing team” team and the three members already on the job are busy paving the way for the next administration to take over.
Brian Klippenstein, Carrie Castille and Lance Kotschwar are hard at work on the fifth floor of USDA’s Whitten building, taking meetings with agency officials and digging through reports and other paperwork on unfinished business from the current administration in order to smooth the transition.
Russell Laird and Stephen Vaden are expected to join the transition team as early as this week.
Meanwhile, Trump continued to interview candidates last week for what could be top USDA slots. But with no announcement, other names are still surfacing in the rumor mill – including one man who previously served as one of Trump’s lenders during some of the President-elect’s toughest financial times and knows a great deal about rural America.
Robert Engel, who stepped down as CEO of CoBank at the end of last year, was one of Trump’s main bankers when he was Executive VP and Head of Special Assets for HSBC/Marine Midland in the 1990’s. He has not been asked for an interview yet, but Engel said Trump was a “man of his word in all of my dealings with him. He proved to me he was at his best when times were the toughest.”
One thing is certain: If the decision was up to Sen. Chuck Grassley, it would have been made quickly. The Iowa Republican Tweeted Sunday in support of Bill Northey, the Hawkeye State’s agriculture secretary since 2007.
With only about a week and a half until the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, a decision is expected soon.
Farm groups stress importance of trade to Trump. The new administration takes over this month and farm groups are letting the president-elect know just how important it is that foreign markets continue to expand for agricultural exports from the U.S.
“The importance of trade to America’s farmers and ranchers cannot be overstated,” said 15 farm groups in a joint letter to Trump. “The share of U.S. agricultural production exported overseas is 20% by volume, with some sectors being much higher.”
Beyond promising to pull the U.S. out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump has pledged to get tough with trading partners like China.
But China is a major buyer of U.S. farm commodities and the agriculture sector hopes to see that trade expand.
“Existing markets include China, Canada, and Mexico— U.S. farmers’ first, second, and third largest foreign customers,” the groups stressed to Trump. “U.S. agricultural exports in FY-2016 were nearly $27 billion to China, over $24 billion to Canada, and nearly $19 billion to Mexico.  Disrupting U.S. agricultural exports to these nations would have devastating consequences for our farmers and the many American processing and transportation industries and workers supported by these exports.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Cotton Council, National Pork Producers Council and ten other groups signed on to the letter.
Farm Bureau’s Duvall calls on Congress for guest worker reform. American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall used his speech at the group’s annual convention this year to call on Congress and the incoming Trump administration to make it easier for farmers to hire laborers from south of the border.
Congress came close to overhauling immigration policy during the Obama administration. The Senate passed legislation to provide farmers with a more reliable means to legally employ workers from Mexico and other countries, but the House never voted on it.
“We must have a new agricultural visa program that actually works for farmers and farm laborers,” Duvall said at the convention this weekend in Phoenix, Arizona. “We must find a way for experienced farm workers to legally remain in the U.S., working on our farms. President-elect Trump cares about immigration reform. He has talked about it for years, and we know that he wants to find a solution. We want to solve it, too. And his team has promised us that agriculture will have a seat at the table. So there is hope, if we take action and make our voices heard.”
USDA prepares to get an early start on reevaluating livestock reporting system. Congress has until 2020 to reauthorize USDA’s Mandatory Livestock Reporting Act (LMR) and the department has until the spring of 2018 to finalize a report on the program for lawmakers, but USDA is preparing to start the process now.
Mike Lynch, director of USDA’s livestock, poultry and grain market news, said the Agricultural Marketing Service is getting ready to host a meeting this spring with meat industry representatives. The goal, Lynch said in an audio posting, is to gather feedback from companies on what changes or improvements they thing are needed to keep the program relevant.
All of the feedback will be consolidated into USDA’s 2018 report to Congress, Lynch said.
“Congress does not necessarily want to see a report that has 20 different positions that everyone supports differently,” he stressed.
He said it: “The election should send a message—loud and clear—to our politicians: ignore rural America at your own risk!” That was American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, speaking at the group’s annual convention. Rural America came out in droves for Donald Trump in the November election, helping him to beat Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival.
Spencer Chase and Sara Wyant contributed to this report.



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