"We always expect the unexpected ... and we didn't expect this," says Virginia farmer Robert Mills, Jr. "But I will tell the American people that your farmers and your ranchers are out here working each and every day to make sure that those grocery store shelves stay full." pic.twitter.com/tz6hphqOuB— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 19, 2020
After Pittsylvania County farmer Robert Mills made some brief comments about the state of American agriculture, the first response from President Donald Trump had nothing to do with agriculture.
“I love his accent,” he said of Mills’ southern drawl. “I love that accent.”
Mills, a first-generation farmer, was one of three of Virginia farmers to appear at the White House for an event where Trump and other members of his administration talked about a new initiative to support farmers and ranchers across the country during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which Trump announced Tuesday, will send $16 billion directly to farmers and ranchers nationwide. Through this program, farmers will be eligible to receive up to 80% of the difference between prices before the coronavirus and current prices for all types of livestock and agricultural products.
“It’s not a rescue program," Mills said. "It’s going to help these farm families be able to make good financial and wise decisions."
Added Trump: “[Farmers] just want a level playing field.”
The program will be funded through both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and several other funds from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Mills, who serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau State Board, said that he and the other two Virginia farmers there did not know that they would give a speech. White House staff had told them that Trump sometimes calls people up to the podium.
“Little did we know that President Trump was going to call on each one of us,” Mills told the Register & Bee.
Mills first learned of the event Friday.
During his short speech, Mills talked about the uncertainty that farmers and ranchers across the country often face. For his operation, which includes tobacco, industrial hemp, beef cattle, poultry and small grains, he said that diversity is the key to staying afloat.
“We are diverse because we always expect the unexpected and we want to make sure that we can stay in business,” he said.
Before Mills could enter the White House, he was sent into the Eisenhower Building across the street and tested for COVID-19.
During the briefing, Trump also called out Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, particularly for his push to enact several gun control measures.
“With your crazy governor, we’re going after Virginia,” Trump said. “They want to take your Second Amendment away, you know that right? You’ll have nobody guarding your potatoes.”
David Hickman, one of the other Virginia farmers, who spoke, is a fifth-generation potato farmer.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also spoke about the new program and the importance of American agriculture.
“American agriculture, farmers and ranchers, have been the bedrock of our American economy since the founding of our nation, and still are,” he said.
Farmers will be eligible to sign up for the program beginning May 26.
Stephen Barts, Pittsylvania County Extension Agent, said the Farm Bureau made an excellent choice in allowing Mills to speak on behalf of farmers across the country.
“Robert is a fantastic ambassador for agriculture,” Barts said. “I don’t know that they could have picked a better spokesman.”
Ben Rowe, National Affairs Coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau, attended Tuesday's event and said the aid being sent through Virginia's farmers will come as a big relief.
"The aid provided through CFAP can't arrive soon enough as the effects of this pandemic continue to compound and ripple through the farm economy," Rowe wrote in an email.
Mills was thrilled with the opportunity that he had to “bring some peace and hope to the American people” by assuring them that farmers and ranchers across the country are working hard to make sure that the country’s food supply remains intact.
“The Trump Administration welcomed us into the building, and that whole administration and staff made us farmers and ranchers feel important today,” Mills told the Register & Bee. “They went above and beyond to accommodate us.”
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.
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