If farmers left U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with one take-home message this week, it was — as one producer put it — “Don’t screw up crop insurance!”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s key cabinet member on farming, Perdue was in Illinois to hear what farmers and agribusiness leaders had to say about the upcoming new version of the Farm Bill.

Right now, there is controversy on Capitol Hill as reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office have produced wildly differing profit profiles on crop insurers. One report says insurance companies make about 1.5 percent on sales. The other says profits can be 18 percent. Farmers wanted to know why there are such different figures. And, if the profits are huge, why are so many crop insurers leaving the business?

Perdue heard firsthand that there is a fear among farm organization leaders and farmers that the crop insurance program will be subjected to another round of re-negotiation. What might come out of such an overhaul is anyone’s guess. Again and again, Perdue was begged not to mess with the crop insurance program but to leave a safety net for producers.

A farmer and veterinarian and the former Governor of Georgia, Perdue officially took his position as leader of USDA just four months ago, in late April. Most farmers do not realize Perdue is a licensed helicopter pilot.

Perdue was joined by a host of Ag Committee members from the U.S. House of Representatives. On a committee heavily populated with congress members from Illinois and cattle states, it was nice to see one Northeastern member at the listening sessions. Those in attendance included U.S. House Ag Committee Chairman Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas 11 District; Rep. Collin Peterson, of Minnesota’s 7 District, and the ranking Democrat; Rodney Davis, R-Illinois 13 District; Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois 12 District; Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois 18 District; Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois 17 District; and Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pennsylvania 5 District.

Note the mix of Republicans and Democrats. Although Perdue is a Republican, as are most of the committee members, members of both parties agreed that the Ag Committee is the most non-partisan of the committees on the Hill. “We work well together,” Democrat Bustos said. She noted that seven members of the Ag Committee were in attendance. That, she said, shows just how important farming is in this country.

Perdue often has said that he believes in reaching across the aisle so that partisanship doesn’t get in the way of good solutions for American farmers, ranchers, and consumers.

It was noted that those with the top 20 percent of the nation’s wealth spend more on food alone than the bottom 20 percent of the country makes in disposable income. Food becomes a key expense for those people and, faced with fixed utility and rent bills, the one place they can cut their budget.

“Love or hate the Farm Bill, everyone who eats should support the Bill,” Conaway said. “It is a pocket-book issue.”

Perdue often quotes his father who instilled in him a love of farming: “We’re all stewards of the land, owned or rented, and our responsibility is to leave it better than we found it,” he said.

After listening to farmers, both Perdue and the members of Congress took off in a low-tech, golf cart caravan to hit a couple of tents at the Farm Progress Show. Tellingly, the first tent they stopped at to meet with executives was the ADM display. Perdue’s interest in feed grains is deep. He was a board member for the National Grain & Feed Association, and served as President of both the Georgia Feed and Grain Association and the Southeastern Feed and Grain Association.

Throughout his listening session, it was obvious that both Secretary Perdue and the Ag Committee members share the goal of getting a Farm Bill drafted and passed quickly so it is not dragged out like last go-round.

“We are ready to go back (to Washington, D.C.) and get the job done…sooner rather than later,” Peterson promised, as the others nodded in agreement.

As part of a nationwide pre-Farm Bill listening program, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and members of the U.S. House Ag Committee toured the Farm Progress Show site in a caravan of golf carts complete with police and secret service. Photo by Curt Harler