KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — Kennett Square might be a small town, but as Sonny Perdue found out on Thursday, national ag policies loom large over this center of U.S. mushroom production.
China is “the big moose on the table,” Perdue told local ag leaders at the Kennett Square fire hall in between visits to a mushroom house and the New Holland Agriculture headquarters.
The U.S. was making progress in trade negotiations with Beijing, including securing new farm product purchasing agreements, before the Chinese recently backtracked on some of their commitments, Perdue said.
China has been using intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer from U.S. companies to enhance its economic and military might.
After years of these unfair practices, President Donald Trump isn’t going to let the Chinese slide now, Perdue said.
“We should literally not give up the farm to China,” said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who represents Chester and Berks counties.
Still, Houlahan isn’t pleased that U.S. farmers have suffered under China’s retaliatory tariffs unleashed during the trade war.
The Trump administration doesn’t want farmers to bear the brunt of the broader trade war either. That’s why a second round of direct payments to tariff-battered farmers is coming out, Perdue said.
Of course, it’s not just China that sticks in Trump’s craw. He wants to revamp trade relationships with Japan and the European Union as well.
The U.S. gave concessions to these countries as part of the post-World War II Marshall Plan and the Cold War.
“That was fine as you were rebuilding economies, but when that economy becomes stronger and we have trade deficits with Germany and the EU and Japan and France and those kind of countries that we supported the rebuilding (of), President Trump feels like it’s time to level the playing field,” Perdue said.
The U.S. has made some progress in these countries using international scientific standards to break down protectionist measures, he said.
Jim Angelucci of Phillips Mushroom Farms asked if help is available for U.S. mushroom growers competing with European frozen mushrooms.
The European product has gained a tidy share of the processing market because it’s available at prices below the U.S. cost of production.
Illegal subsidies can be challenged before the World Trade Organization, but Perdue acknowledged that competition still has to exist.
“We can’t talk about free and fair trade while being protectionist,” Perdue said.
Meanwhile, the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement would shore up trade with two of the nation’s biggest trading partners.
The deal is pretty far along. Congressional approval is the biggest hurdle remaining.
But to get to this point, Trump instituted, and recently revoked, tariffs on foreign steel, including from its North American allies.
Those tariffs had a ripple effect on the U.S. mushroom industry, boosting the cost of steel cans, said Joe Caldwell of Giorgi Mushroom Corp.
Perdue said it’s up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to decide when to bring the trade deal to the floor, but he said he believed the bill would pass if voted on today.
Houlahan said Congress’ ability to tackle prescription drug pricing remains a stumbling block. Still, she’d like to get the trade deal passed, and soon. The longer Congress waits, the more likely lawmakers are to get bogged down in the politics of the 2020 election, she said.
Perdue said he hopes the deal will be passed before Congress’ August recess. “This is not like wine. It doesn’t get better with age,” he said.
Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, warned that other countries might see the U.S. as a poor trading partner if the trade disputes continue to drag on.
“If we can’t get along with neighbors, we’re not going to be able to get along with anyone else,” Perdue agreed.
While trade is a pressing issue in many ag sectors, mushroom growers are even more anxious about the shortage of workers they need to produce and harvest their crop.
Growers would love to increase production, but they don’t have enough laborers to pick what they’re growing now, said Meghan Klotzbach of Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms.
And after they’re hired, new workers take nine months to a year to get up to speed.
“That labor is a very skilled labor. It’s not an unskilled labor force,” Klotzbach said.
Perdue said he supports a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that would emphasize border security, merit-based selection, people brought to the U.S. as children, and an ag guestworker program.
The U.S. needs to bring in more engineers and scientists who can grow the economy with high-level skills, Perdue said, but undocumented immigrants who have been working on U.S. farms for years have also gained valuable skills and must be addressed in the comprehensive bill.
“If you can’t get us that, please get us something,” said Stephen Anania, chairman of the American Mushroom Institute.
Simply striking the stipulation limiting H-2A visas to seasonal guestworkers would be a help to the region’s year-round mushroom producers, Anania said.
USDA’s Farmers.gov website now offers farmers some help in applying for the visas, but the seasonal requirement is statutory, so a fix for that has to come from Congress, Perdue said.
But even a slightly modified H-2A program may not be enough. Produce grower Peter Flynn said the program denied his two most experienced Mexican workers this year, and he’s heard of other growers having similar problems.
Perdue said he’s had trouble getting answers about those issues. H-2A visas pass through three federal agencies, and USDA isn’t one of them.
Perdue said the snafus might be related to the flood of migrants at the Mexican border.
If that’s the case, it’s just another example of international events and national policies affecting small-town U.S. farmers.
It seems China isn’t the only moose that stalks this land.