WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 - After the longest search for a USDA chief in modern history, President-elect Donald Trump will nominate for agriculture secretary former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a longtime rural agribusinessman who originally trained as a veterinarian.
Perdue, 70, served two terms as governor, from 2003 to 2011, and was an original member of Trump’s agricultural advisory team, announced in August. Although he has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, he spent much of his career in the grain and fertilizer business in rural Georgia after leaving the Air Force in 1974.
Perdue toured the USDA headquarters during the day Wednesday, sources told Agri-Pulse. Perdue’s cousin, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., later confirmed the nomination on Facebook: “I am so proud of my cousin, Sonny Perdue, for being nominated to be our next Secretary of Agriculture.”
Former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who was apparently in the running until the end, pledged his support for Perdue. “America can rest assured that it will be in good hands with" Perdue, Maldonado said in a statement.
Perdue, whom Trump originally interviewed in November, is well connected politically but Trump’s search process appeared to shift at times toward using the USDA nomination to add a woman or Hispanic to the cabinet.
David Perdue is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Sonny Perdue's former campaign manager, Nick Ayers, has been an adviser to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and was reportedly in the running at one point to run the Republican National Committee.
Before his election as governor, Perdue spent 11 years in the state senate, most of that as a Democrat. He became a Republican in 1998.
In 2011, Perdue and his cousin, a former CEO of Dollar General stores, founded Perdue Partners, an Atlanta-based company described as facilitating exports through “trading, partnerships, consulting services and strategic acquisitions.”
Perdue, who grew up on a diversified crop and dairy farm in Bonaire in central Georgia, is the managing partner of AGrowStar, which operates grain elevators in Georgia and South Carolina. The company was started in 2000 with Perdue’s purchase of another grain company.
He also founded and owns Houston Fertilizer and Grain Co. Inc., which sells retail farming and garden supplies, and Perdue Inc., a freight and warehousing company.
He has served on the board of the National Grain and Feed Association and is a former president of two regional groups, Georgia Feed and Grain and Southeastern Feed and Grain.
Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer who is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that Perdue is a strong administrator whose “roots go back to the farm.”
Duvall, who was president of the Georgia Farm Bureau while Perdue was governor, said Perdue “always had a open door to farmers,” and he “understands agriculture and its importance to our country and its citizens."
James Lee Adams, a former president of the American Soybean Association who farms near Camilla, Ga., said of Perdue: “He knows business and all aspects of agriculture.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at one point took to Twitter to call on Trump to nominate a midwesterner for USDA.
But Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who has been supporting Perdue’s candidacy, said Perdue can help in building bipartisan regional coalitions necessary to pass a new farm bill. Hoeven was serving as governor of North Dakota during much of Perdue’s tenure in Georgia.
“He knows how to work with everybody. He knows everybody,” Hoeven said.
Other candidates Trump considered for the USDA post in addition to Maldonado included Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., former Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla and former Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano.
Perdue was one of the few candidates with experience running an organization as large as USDA, which has more than 100,000 workers in the national capital area and around the country. Georgia has about 68,000 state employees. The Pew Charitable Trusts gave Georgia’s state government a grade of B-plus in 2008.
The Pew report credited Perdue with an initiative to recruit top private-sector representatives to a commission that recommended improvements in state services. The commission resulted in “an intense focus on customer service and on managing for results,” Pew said.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, criticized Perdue’s selection, saying he was unlikely to buck agribusiness. “It’s certainly hard to imagine that a former fertilizer salesman will tackle the unregulated farm pollution that poisons our drinking water, turns Lake Erie green, and fouls the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico,” Faber said.
Faber also criticized Perdue’s nomination because of his farm subsidies. EWG’s records show that while he collected $278,679 in commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2004 he hasn’t received any since then.
Agricultural groups welcomed the pick of Perdue.
“Perdue has a unique and expert understanding of both the business and scientific sides of agriculture,” said Tracy Brunner, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The Farm Credit Council said, “Perdue has a long history of personal involvement in agriculture. He knows the challenges facing our nation's farmers and rural families.”
The American Soybean Association looks forward “to working alongside USDA under Secretary Perdue to ensure that the department continues to serve American soybean farmers in the most effective manner possible.”
North American Meat Institute: "We welcome news that a person like Governor Sonny Perdue, with his extensive knowledge and experience in the agricultural sector, has been nominated to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture.
National Chicken Council: “Perdue has a strong record as two-term chief executive of Georgia and is acquainted with a wide array of agriculture commodities, from chicken and peanuts to cotton and timber.”
(Updated 10:30 p.m. with farm group statements.)