COLFAX - President Donald Trump won't leave American farmers holding the bag.

That was the message from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Monday during a lunch meeting with nearly 100 area farmers and ranchers at the McGregor Co. headquarters near Colfax.

"The president told me, 'You assure American farmers that we're not going to let them bear the brunt of these trade disruptions,' " said Perdue, who was invited to the area by Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who joined him at the meeting.

Perdue's comments came as three of America's top trading partners - China, Mexico and Canada - are set to raise tariffs on about $50 billion in U.S. goods this week, including wheat, pork, beef and hundreds of other food and agricultural products.

The retaliatory moves are a response to higher tariffs the Trump administration recently imposed on steel and aluminum imports, as well higher tariffs on about $50 billion in Chinese goods that take effect this week.

McMorris Rodgers asked Perdue to share the administration's perspective on the trade dispute, saying it has farmers quite nervous.

"It's making farmers nervous?" Perdue replied. "It makes me nervous. Overall, 20 cents out of every dollar in farm revenue comes from exports. When our entire production system is based on feeding the world, any disruption in trade raises concerns."

However, he said the president's ultimate goal is to create a more level playing field for American producers by discouraging unfair trade practices.

"He says to me, 'You tell them we're going to make things better,' " Perdue said. "He really believes in American workers and American innovators."

Perdue has a degree in veterinary medicine and ran a successful grain elevator and farm supply business for nearly 30 years. He later served two terms as governor of Georgia.

As head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his goal is to make it the "most efficient, effective and customer-focused organization in the federal government."

A major part of that, he said, is getting out and meeting American farmers and ranchers all across the country.

In addition to the lunch meeting in Colfax, Perdue held a breakfast meeting in Spokane, toured Washington State University's Plant Growth Facilities and met with Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little at the University of Idaho on Monday afternoon.

The hectic schedule didn't leave much time for discussion. Only six people were able to ask questions before he left Colfax for his next stop.

One of the first questions came from Idaho County Commissioner Mark Frei, who wondered where agriculture fit into the president's priorities.

"I agree our trade imbalance needs to be worked on, and there may be some pain in addressing that," Frei said. "But it feels like agriculture is being tossed under the bus for the sake of other industries (that benefit more from the Trump administration tariffs)."

Perdue said he's incapable of saying "where anything is in the president's mind," but he believes much of the current trade uncertainty will be resolved once NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is renegotiated with Mexico and Canada.

The talks were on hold during the Mexican presidential campaign. The election took place Sunday, so Perdue is "hopeful" that a revised agreement that resolves differences with both countries can soon be negotiated.

"I'll feel a lot better when we get that done," he said.

In the near term, Perdue said he'll continue his "shuttle diplomacy" with the White House, serving as an "unapologetic advocate" for the agricultural industry within the administration, while explaining and "translating" its policies so producers have some idea what to expect.

He also said he expects to release a "mitigation strategy" this fall, outlining what the administration will do to shield farmers and ranchers from the negative consequences of the current trade disputes.

Perdue didn't provide any details on what such a strategy might entail. He first mentioned it publicly last Tuesday, describing the effort as a "compensation plan for farmers injured by the trade disruption." News reports indicate that most major agricultural associations have no idea what's in the proposal.

"My timeline for implementing the mitigation strategy is Labor Day," Perdue said. "By then, farmers will need some idea (about what the administration will do)."

Perdue noted that the USDA also accepts comments online. The address is www.usda.gov/tellsonny.

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Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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