Tennessee farmers: Industry is at risk

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- A lot of anxiety and worry has been on the minds of Tennessee farmers, prompting USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to visit with agricultural workers across the state on Tuesday.

The secretary held a Tax Day event and discussion on tax-reform law, along with several important agricultural issues. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said that Perdue and Congress need to help farmers quickly.

"First time we've had somebody his stature address agriculture in our area. It's a huge industry for our state, it's the largest with tourism, and folks have valid concerns and if we aren't careful, one of these days we are gonna regulate these farmers out of existence and the 'mom and pop' farms will be gone," Burchett said.

Several issues were addressed while the secretary also took questions from farmers representing several Tennessee counties.

Perdue spoke to possible immigration labor and discussed President Trump's plan for a legal workforce.

"We are working with DHS, Department of Homeland Security, to talk about the people working on these farms, and they aren't the ones involved in crimes, gangs and those kinds of things. So until we get a legal workforce, we are bearing on them to get some relief," Perdue said.

Grainger County farmer David Mitchell said his major concerns are a reliable workforce and the Dean Foods dairy contracts ending in May.

"You can't make people buy milk, you can't make people buy a hamburger, it's just a wonderful and bad thing to be in, we are so blessed in this country to have abundant food supply," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the possible closing of Southeastern Provision, a Grainger County meat packing plant at the center of an IRS probe and ICE raid, could have major impacts on the farming industry as a whole in Tennessee. Mitchell said the plant was taking 200 cattle a day.

"If it gets shut down, the cattle industry is going to be in trouble. Now the thing about it is, there was some mistakes made up there, but they can be corrected," Mitchell said.

Perdue coninued to answer a wide variety of questions and spoke specifically to the dairy farmers losing their Dean Foods contracts, explaining that a solution is being worked on, but it won't be done by May.

"The USDA and President Trump don't have a magic business model to make someone come to your farm and say, 'I want to buy your milk,' we are going to talk to all the co-ops and all the people we can from an influence perspective, but that's a business decision," Perdue said.

Perdue stressed to farmers that he would continue to relay their concerns to the White House.

"I want to thank you all for coming out today and giving us that opportunity to be that ambassador and translate from President Trump to you all, but I want to do the reverse as well and hear your stories to take back to him," Perdue said.

For East Tennessee dairy farmers with Dean Foods contracts, the contracts will end on May 31, 2018.