In Minnesota, Trump's Ag secretary tries to calm trade war fears

President Donald Trump's top agriculture official told Minnesota farmers Wednesday that they would recover their Chinese markets after a trade deal is negotiated.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took part in a listening session at Minnesota FarmFest, an annual celebration of the agriculture industry. Farmers told Perdue they were growing impatient over the administration's trade war with China.

"I think we’ll gain the market back," Perdue said. "If your solution is to forget about what China’s done, and sell to them and trade with them anyway with cheating, then I fundamentally disagree with you."

Speaking with reporters after the event, Perdue could not say how soon a trade deal would happen. Asked if one needed to be signed soon, Perdue said the standoff "needs to end when it's resolved."

That did little to ease nervous farmers who have seen their prices drop and markets cut off. Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, told Perdue during his listening session that the trade war was the "elephant in the room."

"This is causing long-term devastating damage, not only to farmers, but rural communities," Wertish said. "If the farmer goes in to see his lender in the fall and says, sorry, he doesn’t have enough money and can’t make it, the market didn't get a price, the banker doesn’t tell them, 'You’re a patriot, you don’t have to pay your bill.'"

The Trump administration is sending billions of dollars in aid to farmers affected by the trade negotiations, which Wertish said would be viewed as a "bailout" to the general public.

This week, the Chinese retaliated against U.S. tariffs by banning state-owned companies from importing U.S. agricultural products.

Perdue said the federal government would not make any additional aid available to farmers as a result of the Chinese retaliatory move.

Trump has long said he's standing up for American farmers, but Brian Thalmann, a fifth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Plato, questioned that narrative.

"Some of the rhetoric that farmers are starting to do great again – we’re not starting to do great again," said Thalmann, who is president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. "Things are starting to go downhill very quickly."

Perdue said he expected negotiations to restart in September when China is scheduled to send a delegation to the U.S. An earlier trip of American officials to China this summer went poorly, he said.

"It doesn’t help if you don’t talk," Perdue said, adding that he was hopeful the two sides can get "back on track."

Perdue spoke along with five members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, a group that included House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson.

Peterson, a longtime Democratic congressman from western Minnesota, said he wouldn't have gotten into a trade war with China.

"It’s a tough sled with these guys (the Chinese)," Peterson said. "They do things a lot different than we do."

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a first-term Democrat from the south Metro, said the Trump administration should negotiate deals with Vietnam, Japan and other countries before employing a "nuclear option" over trade with China.

"Mr. Secretary, I’m rooting for you and the administration to be successful. But I just want to tell you, I’m not sure how much longer our farmers can wait," Craig said.