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Perdue’s Friends Expect Big Things From Soon-to-Be USDA Secretary
If there’s one thing people should know about Sonny Perdue, it’s that he’s a better hunter than he is a golfer.
Proof of that, said Gary Black, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture who said he’s known Perdue for 30 years, came during a friendly game one day in weather that wasn’t exactly conducive to playing 18 holes.
“I was with him when he took what I believe was a three-iron on a 190-yard par-three in gale-force winds and he hit, oh brother, he hit a hook that went 190 yards, into the wind, straight into the hole,” Black said. “He may have one of the ugliest golf swings I’ve ever seen. It was the most-awful looking shot you’ve ever seen, but it curved right into the hole.”
What he lacks in golf skills, however, he makes up for in hunting skills, Black said. He’s a “hunter’s hunter” who hunts quail with a 4-10 shotgun and doesn’t miss, the commissioner said.
“There aren’t many people who hunt quail with a 4-10 and don’t miss,” Black said.
His golf game aside, Perdue likely will do well as agriculture secretary due to his experience in agriculture, politics, and business, people who know him said in multiple interviews with Successful Farming.
Perdue, the least controversial of President Donald Trump’s nominees for his cabinet, likely will soon be confirmed as the next secretary of agriculture. He served as governor of Georgia, becoming the first Republican gubernatorial candidate elected in the state in more than 130 years, from 2003 until 2011. Prior to that he was a state senator, representing the Democratic party until 1998.
Perdue, 70, is an Air Force veteran, and he earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Georgia in 1971. He now owns a company, Perdue Partners, an Atlanta-based global trading company that focuses on exporting U.S. goods and services.
At USDA, he would oversee about 100,000 employees and a $140 billion budget. He was recently sanctioned by several agriculture groups and was the only nominee endorsed by his predecessor, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Those who know him well have unanimously told Successful Farming that they believe he will excel in the position because he’s still down to earth and the son and grandson of a farmer.
Georgian Through and Through
Billie Sanders, a Georgia cotton, peanut, soybean, and pine tree farmer and active member of the state’s Farm Bureau, has played host on his century farm to a dove-hunting fund-raiser for the eradication of the boll weevil pest in cotton in Georgia, the second-largest cotton producer behind only Texas.
Since 2003, when he became the state’s governor, Perdue has attended the Dove Days in Dooley County event along with his family including twin granddaughters. Dove hunting is as much a social event in Georgia as it is a sporting event, Sanders said.
“Most all of us were raised up eating dove and quail,” he said, Perdue included. “His father was a farmer; Sonny was raised up on a farm. He is not a city boy. The local farm community is really excited with the idea that Sonny could represent us at this level.”
Embracing All Farmers
Perhaps the biggest knock – if one could call it that – against Perdue as ag secretary is that he’s not from the Midwest or the Plains where the biggest crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and wheat – are grown. Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who served with Perdue from 2007 to 2011, said that will be something the former governor will need to overcome – being a Southerner in what many feel is a Midwesterner’s role.
Knowing his political acumen and his ability to build consensus between those with differing political affiliations and differing views on policy is one of Perdue’s strong points, so he should be able to quickly win over producers from Iowa and Illinois, the biggest producers of both corn and soybeans, and Kansas, the largest grower of wheat, Cagle said.
“I do think there are Midwesterners who have traditionally felt the ag secretary should come from that jurisdiction, and he will certainly have to convince those people that he’s going to be a secretary of agriculture for all of America,” Cagle told Successful Farming. “Let’s face it, Midwesterners are deeply involved in grains and dairy and other sectors of the market, but he understands that.”
Perdue also has owned and operated several grain elevators, giving him a unique understanding of agricultural production in several parts of the country, Sanders said.
“They should give him a chance to prove himself to them,” he said. “He’s not a timid fella, but he’s not a Donald Trump either. He’s somewhere in between.”
Trump Ag Advisory Member
Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa farmer and owner of Summit Agricultural Group, served on President Trump’s agriculture advisory panel along with Perdue during the recent election. The panel is still intact and is working on getting the government to hold an Agricultural Summit focused on trade issue and the 2018 Farm Bill, he says.
“We export a significant amount of pork, beef, corn, and soybeans all around the world,” Rastetter said. “So, trade issues are very important for agriculture. And the ag advisory group will be focused on making sure trade agreements are fair for all involved.”
The 2018 Farm Bill likely will be a challenge for the new ag secretary, several sources said, and Perdue will enter the position at a tough time, said Sanders, who indicated he’d like to see some sort of safety net.
Perdue Fit For Ag Industry’s Future
Farmers “ride a rollercoaster” with commodity prices and input expenses, “so we need something to level things out,” he said. The continuation of the family farm is another issue Sanders said he’d like to see addressed.
“One of the biggest things that we need, and will be hard to get, is a way to get the family farm to continue to exist into the next generation as a viable farm unit,” Sanders said. “With the land prices as high as they are, it will be difficult for family farms to exist.
Livestock producers also should be “excited” about Perdue’s nomination, Rastetter said. As a veterinarian, he understands agriculture sciences. Dewey Lee, the head of the Georgia Corn Growers Association and an Extension agronomist at the University of Georgia, said he always viewed Perdue as a middle-of-the-road type of governor, one who seemingly got along well with those he governed and someone who was smart enough to let smart people do their jobs.
“If you ask the commodity groups, he kind of left us alone,” Lee said. “He didn’t try to interfere, so we did quite well. He was very supportive of ag in the state.”
Black, the commissioner at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said he expects Perdue to do well in his new role. He said his sense of service and duty to the people he represents is something he takes very seriously.
“When he was governor, he made a commitment to act on behalf of the ag community,” Black said. “He always said, ‘as long as I’m governor, farmers will come in the front door of the governor’s office.’ I know his aspirations – he would want every farm family in America to know that we’re going to have a strong, vibrant USDA, and he’s going to be the chief advocate for farm families everywhere.”
By Tony Dreibus and Mike McGinnis