By William Lauterbach
Reader’s Digest has a regular column entitled “My Most Unforgettable Character.” After meeting Hank Choate, manypeople walk away with that same feeling: he is unforgettable.
Polite, mild-mannered, yet very matter-of-fact, “Farmer Hank,” as he is affectionately known, was chosen along with 13 other farmers from across the nation to meet with President Donald Trump and American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue April 25. The group was selected to showcase the diverse nature of agriculture production in the U.S.
According to Choate, the meeting included “a diverse group, in regards to production agriculture . . . a blend of male (and) female and diversity in ethnicity as well.” The meeting took place in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House. The attendees collectively met the night before with the Ag Secretary to hammer out the issues they wanted to discuss. “The topics we chose to address were labor, immigration, trade, regulatory reform, tax reform and infrastructure,” said Choate.
Choate emphasized that “our number one issues were labor and trade.” Ninety five percent of food consumers live outside of the U.S., which presents a great marketing opportunity for producers. “He (President Trump) wanted to make certain that those market opportunities were available to U.S. agriculture.”
Another concern to Choate and his fellow producers is the fact that the senate has not yet confirmed a U.S. trade representative. Since this position has yet to be filled, all employees underneath the representative are not yet hired. “It’s critically important that we have these people in position in order to enhance trade,” said Choate.
Co-concerns of the panel were immigration and labor. “You’ve got a program called H2A (and) H2A is primarily a seasonal-type program,” Choate explained. One of the attendees has heavily relied on H2A employment but applicants were greatly reduced under President Obama. Choate added that the application process for the H2A program “has become more burdensome” due to stacks of paperwork.
Also of concern was the need for a 365-day employee program for livestock. President Trump agreed on this point, pledged his support and advised Secretary Perdue to set up a program of protection for the 365-day H2A workers.
Choate relayed a story from the Pennsylvania farmer where a colleague had ICE show up and “rounded up six Hispanic laborers known as chicken catchers.” The farmer had loads of chickens going out the next day, but no workers to prepare them for shipping. He ended up calling a temporary employment agency, which promised 13 workers for the next morning. “The next morning, nine showed up, and after three hours, there was only one left. It demonstrated that they didn’t have the first understanding of what and how to catch chickens, and, more importantly, they lacked the will to even learn and do the job.”
Regarding President Trump, Choate had a lot to recount. He said people ask if President Trump is a good listener. “When each and every one of us spoke to the president, we had his undivided attention. It was eye contact locked on to the person who he was speaking with.”
He also said that President Trump’s responses seemed well-thought out. “Trump’s mind processes so quickly. Each and every time we spoke to the president, the reply back was substantive to the issue or to the question that was asked. And I would have to say I was a little bit surprised at what I would categorize as his understanding of agriculture, being a New York City person . . . I wasn’t expecting the understanding of agriculture that he displayed.”
What really angered Choate after he arrived back home was seeing or hearing news “from the media and pundits that President Trump couldn’t care less about rural America. My take away from that, after meeting with the president, is that it is furthest from the truth. He wants to make sure rural America grows and succeeds.”
Hank Choate is one busy farmer. He was chair of the Jackson County Republican Party for four years, currently serves as the Republican chair for the 7th Congressional District Committee, and as the chair for the state’s issues committee. However, his love and life remains his farm and family. The Choate operation has 180 years of continuous family ownership. He operates a dairy cash crop farm with cattle and a milking herd of about 930 animals total based in Liberty Township. The family farms approximately 2,000 tillable acres in Jackson, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties comprised of corn, soy beans, wheat and alfalfa. Choate is in partnership with his brother, his son and his nephew and says he feels very fortunate because he is “still on my first job.”