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U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky. (Submitted photo)

Top USDA official talks China, soybeans

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Steve Censky spent 21 years as CEO of the American Soybean Association. Now, as U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, he's part of an administration pursuing trade policies that deeply concern U.S. soybean farmers.

Asked what he says about that to his former colleagues, Censky answered, "Understand the anxiety very well. China is U.S. soybean farmers' No. 1 market."

"What I would say is, those (concerns) are understandable. Certainly we're hoping that we can be successful, that China comes to the table (to negotiate)," he said.

Censky met with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists April 9 during the group's annual convention in Washington, D.C. Censky was a substitute for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who was in Washington but unavailable for the meeting, according to USDA staff. It's thought to be the first time since the early 1950s that the serving ag secretary did not meet with the ag journalists during their annual convention.

As deputy secretary, Censky runs the day-to-day operations of 90,000 ag department employees nationwide. He's responsible for implementing policies set by Congress and the Trump administration, which includes Perdue.

The administration's trade policies, particularly its stance on trade with China, alarm many in U.S. agriculture, including soybean farmers.

But Trump is doing what he believes to be best for the country, said Censky, who grew up on a soybean, corn and diversified livestock farm near Jackson, Minn. His Upper Midwest ties include serving as a legislative assistant for former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor, R.-S.D.

"The president has made it clear that some countries like China don't play by the rules, that his job is to make sure he's protecting American interests. And certainly he's taken action to do that," he said.

"Farmers and ranchers, I think, understand that. But at the same time, we know that those actions have created a lot of anxiety," he said.

Even so, Censky said he remains optimistic about the future of U.S. agriculture trade, given growing world demand for food and the U.S. ability to grow and export it.

Censky's other comments include covered the following topics:

• USDA is continuing to invest in infrastructure in rural America.

• Agriculture is "a big beneficiary" of tax cuts and job acts enacted shortly before Christmas.

• USDA has filled most of its state-level administrative vacancies and is working to fill the rest.

• The North American Free Trade Agreement has been good for U.S. agriculture, and the ag sector has consistently made it clear that ongoing revisions in NAFTA must not hurt ag.