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Perdue and Agriculture, Friends from the Start

It took months for farm groups and Tom Vilsack to become comfortable with each other after the former two-term governor of Iowa became agriculture secretary in 2009. It’s a different story for Sonny Perdue. He was embraced from the moment he was selected to be ag secretary in the Trump administration.

Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle, and hay producer from Georgia, who knows Perdue, 70, from his two terms as Georgia governor (2003-2011), says Perdue “was always good at promoting agricultural products” and encouraged exports. Says Duvall, who was state Farm Bureau president at the time, “He told me and he told our farmers that you don’t have to come through the back door anymore. You come through the front door.”

A veterinarian by training and an agribusiness operator, Perdue emphasized fiscal prudence and established an agricultural advisory committee while governor. “He won’t play favorites,” says one lobbyist, who expects Perdue to be a tenacious advocate for agriculture, especially in dealing with EPA and other federal agencies.

With Perdue’s background in ag, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) looks forward to working with him. “The thing we hear over and over again from our membership is, ‘Let’s expand the opportunity to sell our products overseas,’ ” says NCGA executive vice president John Doggett.

For his part, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA)says USDA leadership needs Midwestern representation at the subcabinet level. The family-farming tradition of the Midwest “wasn’t appreciated or protected as much” when a Westerner or Southerner sat in the secretary’s chair, he says. Grassley supports strong limits on farm subsidies, an issue that pits corn, soybean, and wheat farmers of the Midwest and Plains against cotton and rice growers in the South. Congress guards its prerogative to take the lead in writing the farm bill, so Perdue’s views may be secondary on the matter. 

The first Republican to be elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, Perdue was the first person interviewed by Trump for agriculture secretary. He made a successful impression, outshining a half dozen other potential nominees who met Trump later.

“He asked me what my skill sets were and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a businessperson and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally,” Perdue said after the November 30 meeting at Trump Tower. “He lit up. He knew what it takes to make America great again by doing the things we do well, which is agriculture for one, and to free up farmers from the regulations that we see. He was spot-on on those issues.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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