BOISE — Farmers and ranchers described a private meeting with two of President Donald Trump’s cabinet members June 2 as unprecedented and historic.
Instead of addressing the group, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke listened and took notes, according to those who were there.
“They just didn’t have an agenda. They truly wanted to listen to us,” said Aberdeen potato farmer Ritchey Toevs. “It was a pro-producer meeting. It was a completely different experience than I’ve ever had.”
“They didn’t really say much. They let us do the talking,” said Jerome dairyman Mike Roth. “I feel like I witnessed a little bit of history today.”
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, a farmer from Shelley, said he was floored by the nature of the meeting.
“I’m still in shock that they didn’t talk. They just flat-out sat there and listened,” he said.
During the hour-long meeting, the producers were given 5 minutes each to present.
They covered a wide range of topics, from immigration and the importance of labor to aquifer recharge, Food Safety Modernization Act requirements, NAFTA, the U.S. Sheep Experiment station in Dubois, invasive water species, farm bill funding, the Endangered Species Act, Equal Access to Justice Act and grazing and other federal land-management issues.
A lot more could have been covered “but those that spoke hit on many of the issues important to most of the commodities in our state...,” said meeting participant Rick Waitley, executive director of Food Producers of Idaho.
He said ”Perdue was writing like crazy as people talked about their various concerns” and Zinke asked for specific names when it came to certain public lands issues, a development that impressed other meeting participants as well.
Searle told the secretaries that 10 years after the Idaho Supreme Court agreed with Idaho ranchers that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can’t own stock watering rights on federally administered land, “they’re still trying to take those rights.”
“When that was said, Secretary Zinke said, ‘Give me names,’” Searle said. “That was a bright spot.”
“The fact that they actually sat there and listened to 10 of us producers talk about the issues that are affecting us is completely unprecedented,” Jerome rancher Laurie Lickley said. “I think that we will have the opportunity with this administration to continue to address and actually solve the problems that we talked about today.”
The meeting was set up by Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould and kept on track by Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican rancher.
“They sat there for a solid hour and listened to 10 different producers,” Otter told the Capital Press. “In every case, both the secretaries ended up with one question — ‘What can we do to help you?’ That’s refreshing.”
Gould’s intent was to have producers from Idaho’s major farm industries “talk directly to the secretaries rather than being represented by somebody else or having that information filtered,” said ISDA spokeswoman Chanel Tewalt.