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Q&A: Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Ag

10 questions and answers from Sonny Perdue, the new U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Sonny Perdue, 70, became the 31st United States Secretary of Agriculture upon confirmation in April.

It was a long wait. His cabinet position was the last to be filled by President Donald Trump, and is the latest starting date for an agriculture secretary in an incoming administration since the USDA became a cabinet department in 1889.

Perdue, former governor of Georgia and agribusinessman, has launched a new motto upon taking over the USDA: “Let’s do right and feed everyone.” His to-do list this summer is full, from boosting farm markets by increasing international trade to architecting a new 2018 farm bill, and a host of other issues.

This article is a compilation of Perdue’s appearances in Kansas City and as part of a video town hall with National FFA students.

On Working for President Trump:

SP: It’s been a great honor and great opportunity to work for a president who is, I think, keeping his promises. The ultimate thing is when people vote for someone, they want to vote for someone who keeps their promises. … He’s done his best to keep his promises from his campaign. Certainly from an agriculture perspective, deregulation and rolling back some of the very onerous regulations in this space was very important.

On Trade Deals:

SP: (President Trump) wrote the Art of the Deal. He likes to do deals, and I am persuaded that he has the leadership and the tenacity to make a good deal for Americans. … This is a president who is going to fight for America. He’s made it very clear. And, frankly, I like that. I think it’s time we stood up for ourselves and for American producers.

On the 2018 Farm Bill:

SP: There have been some challenges in both cotton and dairy in the 2014 Farm Bill. We talked about some potential solutions going forward that will even make the 2018 Farm Bill smoother. Maybe to do some things prior to the 2018 Farm Bill in cotton and dairy that could help the 2018 Farm Bill go much smoother.

On Proposed Cuts in USDA Funding:

SP: I am prepared to defend that budget, although I would prefer it not be that way. As an American facing a $20 trillion debt with 14 grandchildren, I don’t think it’s my moral responsibility to kick that debt to those 14 grandchildren. … I think that’s what he talked about in the campaign, of fiscal conservativism to get [the budget] under control. Now, a 20% to 21% cut in agriculture, that’s tough.

On Rumored White House Divisiveness

SP: If there is, I don’t see it. This president operates in an open source environment. We don’t need to be ‘yes’ people. We don’t need to speak with one voice. He’s right there listening, and he’ll make the final decision.

What is Your Top Priority?

SP: Generally, to make the USDA the best managed, most efficient, most effective, proudest run, and most fun place to work in the United States government. What does that translate into? It translates into better service and a better product for our producers and our consumers.

What is the Future of Ag?

Sonny Perdues with FFA
USDA
SP: I am excited and optimistic about the possibilities for American agriculture and the very fact of the technology changes that we’ve seen over the last 50 or 75 years. … When we look at just all the things, not only from food and fiber, but from energy production, pharmaceuticals, and other things, there’s an exciting future out there. I am glad that members of the FFA are learning about all the career opportunities. I hope you’ll continue to pursue a science-based education, technology-based, business-based education. All those skills are needed in the future of agriculture. There are just so many opportunities in agriculture today.

How Important is STEM in Education?

SP: STEM education is really a vital component of agricultural education. We know that it takes science – we’re dealing with biological organisms and plants and animals. That’s the biology part, that’s the science part. There’s a lot of mechanical in there, as well. We have a lot of engineering and mechanical and technology. All that, irrespective of what area of agriculture you go in, those are four foundational needs of good education to be successful in the career of agriculture. … I hope FFA members will understand, in their pursuit of education, they not back away from those tough courses, really welcome and receive those, knowing that will be part of their future.

What is the Biggest Problem in Agribusiness?

SP: Obviously the biggest problem is to sustain profitability, and that’s where the USDA comes in to a large part, that’s where the Farm Bill comes in to a large part. We’ve got a safety net. We know that across the country our grain prices are lower, cattle prices are lower. You’re really below breakeven prices in some places. But that’s what agriculture is all about. We have existed that way for many, many years – it’s the cyclical nature of pricing.

One of my goals would be to even that out, where our farmers and producers can remove the obstacles and where they can have a consistent, profitable situation. The challenge is sometimes when it gets so profitable, we overproduce, and that’s kind of where we are today. We’ve got a worldwide supply of grain that’s more than we can consume here in the United States. My role as USDA secretary is to go around the world and sell those products that our great productive people in agriculture in the U.S. have grown. We want to do that, whether it’s cattle, whether it’s grains, or other types of other products.

I think as we build a better demand base here domestically, I think our FFA students can be really, really helpful in telling the story of agriculture. I told the president last week that United States agriculture is the best example I know of a productive manufacturing capacity of small business people on family farms across the country. You look at what’s happened over the last 75 to 100 years, it’s absolutely amazing to feed all of our people with the number of farmers we have and to feed much of the world.

Tell that story time and time again. Get outside. Unfortunately, in agriculture many times we just want to speak to ourselves in an echo chamber. The guys in the blue and gold jackets, we know that. You know that. We need to get outside. Create a speakers bureau in your FFA chapter and ask the civic organizations to invite your members to come speak. It’s great experience for you, and it’s very informative for them. I’d love to see FFA chapters all over the country create speakers’ bureaus where they can go and communicate the great message of agriculture to society at large. And I’m telling you, when you go, you’re always more effective than I am. They expect me to tell the story. But when you go and tell it in such a way as you’ve been trained in FFA, you’re very credible.

On Aging Infrastructure

SP: The great news is the president has proposed a very significant, very costly, infrastructure program, and we’re going to be vigorous about making sure his people know that the waterways that ship across the country, both inland, through our river and barge network, as well as our ports on the coast, are very, very important to the ag industry. I look forward to communicating that. Having the facts and the data that the president and his team understand – that infrastructure dollars need to go to enhance to productive capacity. That goes right to trade.

PERDUE BIO:

Name: Sonny Perdue
Title: Secretary of Agriculture, USDA
Home: Grew up on a diversified crop and dairy farm in Bonaire in central Georgia.
Background: Georgia state senator for 11 years; elected governor from 2003 until 2011. An Air Force veteran, he earned a doctorate of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Georgia in 1971.
Family: He is a proud grandfather of 14.

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