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Farmers, crops won’t be ‘weapon’ in U.S.-China trade war, Perdue says in Kentucky

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center, stood between Townsend Sorghum Mill owner Danny Townsend, right, and a cardboard cutout of Townsend. Perdue visited the mill in Montgomery County on Friday. Photo by Greg Kocher
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center, stood between Townsend Sorghum Mill owner Danny Townsend, right, and a cardboard cutout of Townsend. Perdue visited the mill in Montgomery County on Friday. Photo by Greg Kocher gkocher1@herald-leader.com

American farmers will not be “the tip of the spear” in the escalating trade war between the United States and China, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday in a visit to Kentucky.

Asked what he would say to reassure farmers, Perdue said: “I understand your anxiety. The president understands your anxiety. But he has committed personally to me and publicly to the farmers of America that he’s not going to allow them to be held hostage in these trade disputes with China ...He’s not going to let farmers be the weapon or the tip of the spear there.”

Perdue, 71, made the comments during a visit to Montgomery County east of Lexington. Perdue, a former Georgia governor, has been traveling through Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky in recent days to meet local farmers, business owners and community leaders.

Farmers are concerned about a tit-for-tat trade war between China and the United States. China has put soybeans on the potential list for a 25 percent tariff increase. The Chinese market is particularly important to American soybean farmers. The United States exported nearly $14 billion worth of soybeans to China in 2017, which represents nearly 30 percent of the nation’s soybean production.

Hog farmers are also watching. China imposed new tariffs on pork this week. The National Pork Producers Association says about 26 percent of total U.S. production is sold in export markets. Last year, China bought about $1.1 billion of pork from the United States.

Perdue said he applauds President Trump for challenging China’s unfair trade practices. “It’s time it stopped,” he said.

Perdue was criticized this week by an advocacy group called the Union of Concerned Scientists, which said he has rolled back school nutrition standards and removed protections for small farmers. The group called for greater congressional scrutiny of USDA.

Perdue dismissed the criticism.

“You just need to look at the resumé of those scientists,” Perdue said. He did not elaborate.

Perdue addressed a contentious crop in Kentucky when he told reporters the Trump administration has no position on efforts to legalize industrial hemp.

“If it turns out to be an economically viable crop, I can assure you that we’ll look forward to that being part of the forte of American agriculture,” Perdue said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced last month that he will introduce a bill to remove industrial hemp from the federal government’s list of controlled substances.

Industrial hemp looks similar to marijuana but contains a negligible amount of the intoxicating ingredient. Hemp fibers can be used to make rope, cloth and paper while hemp oil can be used in cosmetics and food.

Perdue told farmers, students and community leaders that he couldn’t predict how McConnell’s bill will fare in Congress.

Sitting next to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, Perdue said, “If I knew what Congress was going to do, Andy, I’d go bet big at Keeneland.” Perdue was scheduled to visit the Lexington thoroughbred track Friday.

Earlier in the day, Perdue visited Townsend’s Sorghum Mill in Jeffersonville south of Mount Sterling. The company makes and sells a variety of products such as sorghum and apple butter.

Rubbing his bald pate, Perdue asked owner Danny Townsend if he makes shampoo.

Townsend picked up a bottle of Harvest Rum made by Wilderness Trace Distillery in Danville and told him, “If you drink this you won’t need any shampoo.”

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