Sonny Perdue answering reporters' questions Jason Getz/Getty
GETTING TO WORK: Sonny Perdue takes the reins of the top spot at USDA with a long list of issues ahead — from conservation to the next farm bill.

A wish list for a new ag secretary

Commentary: Sonny Perdue gets the nod for the top spot at USDA. What priorities should he set?

The West is a big place. In Western Farmer-Stockman we strive to cover agriculture in eight states, and that's no easy task. The diversity of agriculture in one state alone — like Idaho, where more than 180 crops are grown — typifies this amazing region of the United States. We have a new Secretary of Agriculture chosen for the Trump administration. It was the last cabinet office to be filled, and for many in agriculture the answer at the end of the process was basically, "It's about time."

Now the work begins. As the new USDA secretary, where should Sonny Perdue focus his efforts? From a Western perspective, that's a big question. Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me on this topic.

Working lands conservation
Conservation is a great tool. Farmers want to preserve the land; but heck, we also want to make a living off the ground we've bought and paid for. The sweat equity a farmer invests in the lands owned and managed for a typical operation would astound a city dweller.

While not everyone in the West was a fan of Tom Vilsack, one area where he did some work was the idea that conservation could happen on land that was still being farmed. That's a great idea. The approach that the only way to conserve the land and resources is to park the ground and let it go to seed (but control those noxious weeds) doesn't fit well with the entrepreneurial code of the West.

Instead, we hope the new Secretary of Agriculture offers programs and support for conservation programs that keep you on the land, raising cattle or the crops you need. If there's a need to extend riparian areas to protect water, great, but provide the financial support for the "taking" of that ground — or help ranchers find ways to achieve the same goal while cattle get use of that water.

Protecting animals
Need to protect a specific creature in the wild? Consider the needs of all stakeholders in the argument, not just the loudest and, many times, most uninformed.

Animals that tear through crops or eat livestock may need some form of protection, but so does the farm and ranch livelihood in the West. Find ways for all sides to work together to better understand the ecology of a problem, and seek rational solutions. Total bans of this, or complete blockades of that, just don't work in the long run.

The success the West has had with protecting the sage grouse shows that public-private partnerships can work.

Immigration — a big one
For some in the West, immigration is needed to get the crop in. For others, the problem of illegal immigration is the danger of criminals and others using remote lands for their own purposes. The Secretary of Agriculture doesn’t set border policy. But hopefully, he can make his voice heard in Congress during the debate on the issue. Whether someone builds a wall or not (and we'll not debate who may pay for it), for some in agriculture we'd like that wall to have a door — so workers can come into this country to help with the dairies and specialty crops that need all those hands to do the work.

If there's a way to get domestic workers to help out — really help out — sure, that's an idea. But ag in the West also gets plenty of support from legal immigrants. It's not an easy issue, but our story has to be part of the debate.

The foodie issues
The Secretary of Agriculture will be part of the final rules on the GMO labeling process; and work on further enforcement of the new Food Safety Modernization Act, school lunch programs and SNAP spending. They're all eventually tied into the USDA required bill of work. The new Secretary of Agriculture needs to keep sound science in mind.

GMO technology can enhance food quality. Blocking new ideas before they even reach the market is basically not rational. A non-browning apple? A potato that has better shelf life? Consumers should want these, without the false fear-mongering from opponents. And remember, GMO tech is just getting started; new tools that don't use "transgenic techniques" are coming forward with gene editing precision never seen before. The Secretary of Agriculture has to help champion that new technology, so a key part of his constituents — farmers and ranchers — can help feed the world.

It's a tall order, this wish list. And we wish him luck.

TAGS: Conservation
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