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U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky spoke with reporters in St. Paul on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, about ongoing trade debates and some of the struggles farmers are facing. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Tariffs, swine fever top of mind as USDA leader sits down with Minn. farm groups

ST. PAUL — Minnesota farm and food industry groups on Tuesday, June 18 pressed U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky for answers about a possible end to ongoing trade fights between the United States and China, as well as Canada and Mexico.

And while he offered possible paths out of the tumultuous trade negotiations, Censky didn't have a clear answer for the dozens of agricultural leaders.

Censky's visit came the same day the United State and China said they'd again attempt to resolve a costly trade dispute next week at a conference in Japan and after President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican goods if the country doesn't slow the flow of immigrants traveling to the U.S.

“We recognize that it is serious,” Censky told attendees at the AgriGrowth roundtable. “We know how important (trade) is for the wellbeing of agriculture overall and individual farming and ranching operations. We are very much committed to getting good trade deals, to resolving this, the trade barriers we have so we can succeed.”

He offered up possible scenarios that could reduce the pressure on farmers: China coming to the table to negotiate, Japan accepting a trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement getting ratified and put in place. But in the short-term, he asked farmers to keep holding on.

“The ball is in China’s court, are they willing to address and come back to the table and address these long-standing market access barriers and theft of intellectual property, or not?" Censky told reporters. "And I think farmers recognize that they want an agreement, but again, it has to be a good agreement."

And he pointed to federal resources that could help them weather the storm as the market continues to struggle.

Censky said the USDA would soon announce $2 million in federal grant funds set to help expand access to mental health resources for farmers enduring stress. And he pointed to a dairy margin coverage program that opened this week to allow dairy farmers to cover the gap between low milk prices and high feed prices.

While farmers have been understanding of the Trump administration's efforts to hike up tariffs as the trade talks wage on, it's come at a cost. Minnesota farmers have braced through five years in a row of low commodity prices, low yields and inclement weather. And the tariffs have added to that hardship.

"Farmers have been willing to go along with taking the brunt of the burden, however at some point, farmers are going to get tired of it," Pat Lunemann, AgriGrowth Chair and a Clarissa dairy farmer, said. “It’s kind of like the frog in the kettle. It’s a slow process. Unfortunately in the last year or so it’s speeding up, the burner’s getting turned up higher.”

Tracking African Swine Fever

Farm leaders at the roundtable also raised questions about the spread of African Swine Fever, which has spurred outbreaks in China as well as in parts of Southeast Asia, Japan, Australia, Poland and Russia.

The virus doesn't pose a threat to people, but it can be devastating for hogs, Censky said. The USDA along with other federal agencies is monitoring the pork imports coming into the country and stepping up efforts to detect raw and frozen pork that could potentially be infected using trained dogs called the beagle brigade.

And earlier this month, state veterinary departments were granted the authority to begin surveilling for the disease as part of routine testing.

"The concern is that unless we're doing some active surveillance to pick it up, it might go by without being detected until it's too late," Jerry Torrison, director of the University of Minnesota veterinary diagnostic lab, told Forum News Service. "We want to make sure we can take advantage of samples submitted from routine sick pig submissions. We're just tacking African Swine Fever right on top of that."

Infected pigs display symptoms including fever, not eating and blotchy-looking skin.

Mental health, stress management support

  • Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline. 833-600-2670. The helpline is free, confidential and available 24/7. Trained staff and volunteers in Minnesota can help manage stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
  • Mental Health and Family Services Line. 1-800-FARM-AID. Farm Aid works with farm advocates, counselors and hotline operators that can help provide support.
  • Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor. 320-266-2390. Matthews works with farmers across the entire state. There is no cost to accessing support.
  • Mental Health Minnesota: Text “MN” to 741741. You can text the service to reach mental health crisis responders.