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Will Congress pass bills to encourage Cuba trade, farm labor changes?
The view from the Louisiana Secretary of Agriculture
David Bennett | Jun 12, 2017

With crop prices low and too many rural communities economically
sluggish, recent news out of the White House hasn't helped disperse
lingering dark clouds. The Trump administration put forth a budget that
would slash USDA programs, has made rumblings that trade advances made
late last year with Cuba would be rolled back and hasn't seemed to focus
on continuing calls from the U.S. agriculture sector for more foreign
farm labor.

Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain – who also heads the
National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) –
admits the cuts to USDA are troubling but something the White House is
open to revisit.

"If you look at the budget cuts to USDA, those are slated at 20 percent
discretionary and 8 percent overall. We're just starting the discussion
on some of the things like the Market Access Program (MAP) and the
program for farm market development. We're going to work to have money
put back into these programs. If you look at MAP, for every dollar spent
we get back almost $50 in sales. That's all about trade.

"So, we'll be working with (Agriculture Secretary) Sonny Perdue on that.
We already visited on this about two weeks ago when I was in Washington.
That was a topic of intense discussion along with Ray Starling, the
president's advisor on agriculture and trade. Starling and I will talk
again (June 8)."

At the end of the day, "especially since the commodity section of the
agriculture budget is such a small portion of the overall federal
budget, we'll make significant strides in putting some of those dollars
back. When you look at the value of those programs, they spur rural
economic development and that enhances the overall commerce of the
entire United States.

"Look at the Office of Rural Development. Producers will remember when a
number of offices were shut down a few years back. Right now, the
offices have to be within 30 miles of each other on average. Get farther
apart than that and people won't take advantage of their services. They
don't want to have to drive an hour.

"They're also talking about cutting 970 positions from the Farm Services
Agency. But this is only where the discussions begin and the next farm
bill will likely take more than a year to draft. We all understand our
money must be invested wisely because the farm bill impacts agriculture,
which is the largest industry in America."

As for Cuba, Kurt Guidry, an LSU agricultural economist, says there is
"definitely potential for trade impacting the Mid-South. For fiscal year
2014/2015, Cuba's total agriculture imports were at $1.9 billion. The
United States had about a $300 million share of that, mostly in poultry.
We sold them about $30 million each of soybeans and corn."

While no U.S. rice was sold to in 2014 "if you look at it historically,
we used to sell a lot to Cuba. In 2014, of that $1.9 billion in Cuban
imports, about 11 percent of that was rice. That would mean about a $200
million to $250 million market for our rice. That's significant and
would mean a nice opening for Mid-South rice growers.

"If you take the ag commodities we were exporting in the late 1950s and
consider it in current dollars, it would about a $600 million market for
us. The credit restrictions are really hampering our export efforts. We
can't sell to them on credit so they go elsewhere to find what they need."

Strain's belief agricultural trade with Cuba won't be pushed back is
buoyed by action in Congress. "There has been a potential compromise
reached with (Arkansas) Rep. Crawford's bill. That would allow private
institutions, not government, to enter into agreements and more
normalization of trade with Cuba.

"In return, there would be a 2 percent surcharge or export tariff or
duty paid for by the seller. That would go into a fund at the U.S.
Treasury for reparation claims to draw from. That's on the table and
both sides are working on it.

"If we can start trade through that mechanism then I'll support it. My
understanding is that is gaining strength in Congress."

What about immigrant farm labor?

"There's also a bill in Congress introduced by (Louisiana) Rep. (Clay)
Higgins addressing farm labor," says Strain. "It would provide for a
three-year returning guest worker. The first year, the worker would
count against the cap (on numbers of workers allowed into the country)
and the last two years they wouldn't count.

"I'm a supporter of that approach. I've long been an advocate of a
returning guest worker provision where you would have to go through all
the red tape only one time."

Is the White House amenable to greasing the skids for farm labor?

"I think so. I don't think it's the White House's intent, at all, to
restrict labor for agriculture. I think the White House understands that
without those laborers the work simply won't get done. We all know that.
Those returning guest workers actually protect American jobs. They
average guest worker protects four American jobs."

Source: Strain Louisiana Mid-South Cuba trade farm labor H-2B -
http://www.deltafarmpress.com/legislative/will-congress-pass-bills-encourage-cuba-trade-farm-labor-changes