Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue discusses labor, trade and immigration issues at the United Fresh Washington Conference. ( Tom Karst )

WASHINGTON, D..C. — While stating that the China trade war “is what it is,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told attendees of the United Fresh Washington Conference that a new trade agreement with Japan may be only days away.

Introduced by Jeff Huckaby, president of Grimmway Farms, Perdue spoke Sept. 18 at the Washington Conference.

He said President Trump is working to expand agriculture exports even as the administration stands up to China’s illegal trade tactics, including technology transfers and intellectual property theft in dealings with U.S. firms.

“We want them to be a good customer but we want them to play by the rules,” he said.

The U.S. and Japan in late August announced they agreed in principle to a trade deal, and Perdue said the deal may be officially inked at the time of the United Nations general assembly Sept. 23-24.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement awaits action by Congress. Perdue said that even though southeast U.S. growers didn’t get seasonal trade protection as a part of the deal, he said it is “chapter by chapter, verse by verse” a much better agreement than the North American Free Trade Agreement it will replace.

With the agreement in the hands of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Perdue suggested that the only reason Democratic lawmakers don’t want to move on the agreement is that they don’t want “to give Trump a win.”

“I believe it will pass both (chambers) of Congress with a majority,” he said.

Perdue acknowledged labor is a top priority for produce growers, and said the USDA and the Trump administration was “doing everything we can” to be part of a solution for a workable legal guest worker program.

Policymakers and the public must make a distinction between broad immigration reform and a legal ag workforce/guest worker program, he said.

“Hopefully we can persuade folks we need a legal guest worker program,” he said. 

The Trump administration is in rulemaking that will modernize the H-2A program and make easier to use, and now offers a web page at to give growers an application checklist of what they need for the program.

Perdue said the agency also is working up data and messaging to show the cost/security/safety of food in the U.S. compared to other countries.

If the public knew how little they are paying for food compared with other countries, they may view U.S. farm policy much differently.

“I want to be a megaphone talking about the success of American agriculture,” he said,, noting the tools of biotechnology have allowed U.S. agriculture to thrive.

“We need to counteract this global zero biotech story we are hearing,” he said.

He challenged produce leaders to tell their stories of food safety, nutrition and stewardship of the land. 

“We have got a good story to tell and we need to tell it well,” he said.

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