POLITICO Pro Q&A: Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain

By Jason Huffman, POLITICO

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Mike Strain, Louisiana’s agriculture commissioner and the president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, isn’t flinching from his support of President Donald Trump.

In a one-on-one with Pro Ag Friday, following the release of Trump’s skinny budget — which would cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s discretionary spending by 21 percent — Strain suggested the president is merely shaking up the status quo in Washington and challenging the beneficiaries of government programs to justify their positions.

Support for Trump has been tested in the agriculture community recently, additionally due to his tough talk on trade that many see as threatening to positive existing export relationships.

Strain’s opinion matters more than that of most state policymakers. Besides being one of the more than 70 members of Trump’s agriculture advisory committee and NASDA's leader, he is the kind of Republican politician drawn to the message of reduced spending.

A former member of Louisiana’s House of Representatives (2000-2008), Strain, in 2008, became the first Republican ever elected to lead the state's agriculture agency and has won reelection twice. He boasts on his own website that he has sliced the number of employees at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry by more than 45 percent (451 positions) since taking office.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How proud are you of your state’s agriculture industry?

Oh, we’re very proud of the state agriculture industry. Agriculture in Louisiana is the leading industry in the state. We have over 217,000 people employed. When I came into office in 2008 [Louisiana agriculture generated] about $7.6 billion [in sales]. Now it’s at $13 billion. We’ve doubled our productivity. And when you look at where we are going, there’s a tremendous future for agriculture. Also, I had a tremendous amount of increased spending in infrastructure at our ports and our grain elevators and our export facilities. We’re investing in rail. And there’s a lot of manufacturing here. So there are a lot of positive things here.

What do you think of President Trump so far?

Well, you know, President Trump has probably done more, as far as changing policy and looking at the nation as a whole in his first 100 days, than any president in this generation. He is talking and taking up more questions and he is starting a great deal of discussion and I think it’s going to hopefully encourage the Congress to do so as well.

… One of the things I fight all of the time here in government is complacency. So you can definitely say now that he has shaken that up. And I do support the president. I don’t have to agree, or disagree with what he’s doing and everything. But I do support him. But we are going to have a very vivid discussion, specifically about trade and the ag budget and the United States Department of Agriculture. And we are going to speak very, very loudly about what we think is important .

On Thursday, the White House released what is known as its skinny budget for fiscal 2018 and on there is a proposal to cut USDA’s discretionary budget by $4.7 billion. Also, the president is calling for a 28 percent cut to the State Department, including [the U.S. Agency for International Development]. Rice is one of Louisiana’s most important crops and it’s also one of the commodities most often purchased by the federal government to provide as international food aid. Are you concerned?

Well, I think what we have to do is, just like when there is a proposal before our state legislature, we have to go in and explain why food aid and the purchase of rice are important. I think what the president is asking is that these things be justified as to why we are doing them. And I think it’s very important that we all speak out and voice our opinions.

Of course the budget has to go before the appropriations committee and the agriculture and other subcommittees on the budget. As you know, where our budget starts and where it ends up are often very different. We are going to have an opportunity to really show how important the rice industry is and how important agriculture is. And how important programs, specifically when you talk about programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

And if you look at the overall farm bill, you know the commodity sections, our sections, really are about 14 to 16 percent of the whole farm bill. But 84 to 85 percent of the whole farm bill is actually in the SNAP program. And the SNAP program has been growing at the expense of the commodity titles. But it is the commodity title that sets the roadmap and puts up the safety net programs for the largest industry in America. It is important that we have, not only conservation, but also food security but ultimately national security.

Louisiana went through some bad flooding recently. How hurt were farmers in the state, and how are they doing now?

When you look at our overall losses to the farmers … you know the Red River left its banks twice and then we had two 500-year floods … and our losses were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, probably closer to $200 million to $300 million. … There was no money for any type of supplemental disaster assistance programs. We’re trying to work through that and we have a small amount of money, $10 million, allocated, which is a fraction of their uninsured losses. These floods happened right as we were getting close to harvest when maximum input costs have been in place

… If you had one farmer who had 1,000 acres, he harvested 60 percent of his rice crop and he had the 60 percent policy, for those 400 acres lost he received zero dollars. So to have significant losses on top of low commodity prices, it’s putting a strain on these farmers and also the banks that are loaning them money.

You’ve suggest that changes could be made to the farm bill to improve disaster relief. What in particular would you change about it?

When you look at crop insurance that allows coverage at 75 to 80 percent, it is very costly. … Also you have to have a three-year average in a region to buy crop insurance for a particular crop. The amount of money for the livestock indemnity program is $20 million for the entire United States for an entire year.

So we have a very weak disaster provision and that’s why we all have to go back to Washington to try to get an ad hoc funding bill. As you know, that gets more and more difficult. So I think when you look at agriculture disasters, that should be included in the Stafford Act just like every other loss of property and business, etc.

So you’re actually talking about amending the Stafford Act rather than the farm bill?

Well, I would take a look at both actually. I don’t think we are going to have an opportunity to put more money in the farm bill. … But it’s something we really need to discuss. But at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be really difficult.

Let’s talk trade. How important is it to Louisiana to open up trade more with Cuba?

Louisiana exports $8.3 billion in production out of our $13 billion. When you look at what Cuba needs, they are going to buy $185 million to $200 million worth of rice, some amounts of wheat, soybeans, poultry, pork. So if you look at our commodity prices, they are all markedly lower, and there is $2 billion worth of food that is going to be imported by Cuba in the next 12 months. Realistically, the United States’ share could be a billion dollars worth of product. Louisiana [agriculture exports] could be at the $500 million mark. And, as you know, every fractional increase in the sale of a commodity is good for all of the commodities and all of the pricing. So rather than the rice coming out of Vietnam, it needs to come out of Crowley, it needs to come out of lower Arkansas. It needs to come out of the United States.

What legislation do you support?

[The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, H.R. 525, Rep. Rick] Crawford’s bill, [which would remove restrictions on the private financing of agricultural goods exported to Cuba]. I support it. I know it is supported by [Louisiana Republican Reps. Clay] Higgins and [Ralph] Abraham.

Last question and it’s the hardest … Ready? Louisiana is known for some fantastic Cajun and creole style dishes. Which one is your favorite?

I like gumbo, cooked down with a lot of okra. Next is probably crawfish etouffe. ... But you have to like the French cooking. How can you not like something cooked with a pound of butter in it?