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Deputy USDA secretary comes home, says farmers need NAFTA

The Minnesota AgriGrowth Council hosted Steve Censky Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, less than a month into his term as U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary. He is a Jackson, Minn., native. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Steve Censky knew many people in his Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, AgriGrowth Council audience in Minneapolis. While he now is deputy U.S. Department of Agriculure secretary, he is a Minnesota native and long-time leader of the American Soybean Association. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Minnesota native Steve Censky returned to his home state on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, 29 days after he became U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary. He told an AgriGrowth Council gathering that trade is important to farmers. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota native, now a key federal agriculture official, stands firmly behind the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Steve Censky says NAFTA is vital for farmers, even as President Donald Trump reportedly is thinking about scrapping the deal.

"We know that NAFTA has been a bonanza for U.S. agriculture producers," Censky said during a Thursday, Nov. 9, Minneapolis visit.

"The importance of NAFTA cannot be overstated," he told Forum News Service in an interview.

The trade deal, inked 23 years ago, has increased American trade with its neighbors 4 percent to 5 percent, Censky added.

Censky said his boss, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, has told Trump that the trade pact is important. "Our message from USDA has been clear: We have to make sure we do no harm to agriculture."

The Censky interview came before he talked to members of the AgriGrowth Council, a Minnesota organization made up of farm and agri-business groups.

In his 20-minute speech to 450 AgriGrowth members, Censky promised that "President Trump listens to his team at USDA."

Censky, deputy USDA secretary for 29 days when he spoke, said that he learned the importance of farm product trade when he was USDA administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service. He worked for both president Bushes and was a long-time CEO of the American Soybean Association, where one of his main duties was to increase exports of the crop.

Reports from Washington indicate NAFTA could be in trouble as the United States, Canada and Mexico are taking a brief break in talks to rewrite the pact. Trump threatens to formally withdraw from NAFTA, saying it has not been fair to the United States.

American farmers produce far more than Americans eat, and depend on foreign trade.

"This NAFTA talk has us scared," President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said.

Without NAFTA, Censky said in the interview, most farmers would experience economic problems. "It would be a real shock to the system."

For many in the AgriGrowth audience, the NAFTA news came from a friend.

Michael Yost of Murdock has worked with Censky for years. He was on the soybean association's board when Censky was promoted to association CEO.

Yost, who worked for the USDA as Foreign Agriculture Service administrator from 2005 to 2008, said Trump made the right choice in picking Censky to be No. 2 in the agency.

"You have to understand where the potholes are in the road," Yost said, and Censky understands the Washington political highway.

Censky, who continues to have family in Jackson and his sister lives in the Twin Cities, told the AgriGrowth audience: "I feel like I am at a class reunion coming back home to Minnesota and being in this conference."

He grew up near Jackson, in southwestern Minnesota. His parent ran a farm and he was active in 4-H, eventually becoming state president.

Censky, now essentially the USDA chief operating officer, said his Minnesota farm and trade backgrounds are useful at the federal agency.

His home town is a good example as USDA officials look to help rural economies, he said. It had a good economy when he grew up and now the Agco farm equipment manufacturing plant has so many jobs that the local area cannot provide enough workers, forcing the company to bus people in.

"Rural development is a high priority for the USDA," Censky said.

The USDA provides so much funding for rural development that if it were a bank "we would rank within the top 10 banks in the United States," he said.

Censky said one of his hopes is to establish a rural innovation center where people can see what works elsewhere in the country and adapt it to their needs.

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Money will be tight in the USDA, he said, as leaders do not expect the agency to get more money. He said some USDA offices that now operate separately likely will merge. And some positions will be left vacant when people retire or go to other jobs.

The USDA will improve its online presence, he said, and encourage people to use the web instead of visiting offices in person. Offices house Farm Service Administration, Rural Development and conservation programs.

Still, he said, "we have no hard plans for closing offices."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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