It’s still unclear who President-Elect Donald Trump will choose as the next secretary of agriculture. Indeed, this is the last cabinet position to be filled in this new administration.
And like all the rest of Trump’s cabinet picks, his choice for head of the USDA could have years-long ramifications for the cattle industry and agriculture in general.
Who Are the Frontrunners?
Some industry insiders are expressing worry over Trump’s delay in choosing a new head of the USDA and are turning to what he said during his campaign for a glimpse at what might be coming. Back when he was merely a candidate, Mr. Trump signaled his intentions to support family farms and farms that produce ethanol.
Interestingly, one of the frontrunners who’s met with both Mr. Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence is Susan Combs, the former agriculture commissioner in Texas.
While many were pleased that Combs could receive a nod from the Trump administration-in-waiting, others were concerned Ms. Combs’ record was “too liberal,” citing her push for healthier foods — farm-grown fruits and vegetables, namely — in America’s schools, and seeking to make fried and otherwise less-healthy foods less accessible to American children.
Another potential Trump pick, Sid Miller, is equally controversial, but for vastly different reasons. In stark contrast with Combs, Miller has actively championed bringing high-calorie sodas into the Texas school system.
A Long-Lasting Effect
Trump’s eventual choice for agriculture secretary is going to have a lasting effect on the way the farming and cattle industries interact with the public. And at a time when farm subsidies are being targeted by conservative and liberal politics alike, and folks everywhere are trying to balance their meat intake with the welfare of the natural world, this will be a consequential appointment.
Trump appears to favor a shift in thinking from corporate farmers to family-owned and -operated farming outfits. Having rallied his fiscally conservative supporters across the country, Trump likely will choose an ag secretary who embraces cutting farm subsidies, which cost taxpayers about $9 billion a year but require none of the means testing other forms of government support usually require.
Others Who Will Impact the Cattle Industry
Yet, while we await Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary, some of his other picks have already made waves in the cattle and meat industry.
Trump’s chosen ambassador to China, Iowa governor Terry Branstad, has decades of experience negotiating farming trade deals between the U.S. and China. Iowa is, after all, a national hotspot for soybean and hog farming. Branstad championed Big Agriculture-backed laws that made it illegal to document the living conditions inside livestock farms.
Branstad also received substantial campaign contributions from the Roth family — beef moguls most famous for their production of so-called “pink slime,” a product as controversial as it is damaging to the meat industry’s reputation.
The president-elect has also tapped Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is a longtime friend to the oil industry and the farming industry alike, and has pushed for a general loosening of environmental protection initiatives. Branstad also doesn’t believe in governmental oversight for the treatment of confined animals.
At a time when more Americans than ever are conscious of their contribution to animal suffering, this track record might upset some. But his belief in self-regulation could be good news for some farmers.
An Industry in Transition
Naturally, no matter who becomes agriculture secretary, the industry as a whole will continue to change with the times, as it’s always done.
One of the challenges now facing the cattle industry is the push for low-meat or reduced-meat diets. As the general population has learned more about animal agriculture and its contribution to climate change, more and more Americans are embracing veggie-heavy diets. Some industry experts believe beef consumption in America peaked in 1976 at 94.4 pounds per person, per year, after seeing a steady climb throughout the decades, from 56 pounds in 1937.
All told, the Trump administration is a mixed bag for the cattle and agriculture industries. We’re almost certain to see an across-the-board weakening of animal and environmental protection laws, which some farmers will welcome.
Journalists who’ve spent any amount of time covering America’s farming industry understand the pushback against regulations isn’t what’s hurting the family-owned farms. Cattle prices have been dropping steadily for years, resulting in 14.8 percent lower cash receipts for the average farmer in 2015.
The coalescence of corporate power in the industry is a threat to smaller farmers. If voters were hoping for a champion for the underdog cattle farmers in this country, they may have bet on the wrong horse.