WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2017 - Many people familiar with Sonny Perdue’s time as Georgia governor are thrilled with his nomination as Agriculture Secretary, saying President Donald Trump selected a good listener, efficient delegator, and thorough thinker.
Trump officially announced Perdue as his choice for ag secretary last week – the last cabinet member to be nominated – after a search of historic length. Ag groups were quick to voice their supportfor Perdue, and people from his native Georgia say that support is well placed.
Donnie Smith, who served as Perdue’s Liaison for Agriculture during both of his terms as governor (2003-2011), spoke highly of his former boss in an interview with Agri-Pulse. He pointed to specific action on creating a state water board, addressing value-added opportunities for the state’s diverse array of commodities, and the creation of an agricultural advisory committee as positive achievements. (American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, then the president of Georgia Farm Bureau, served on that advisory committee).
However, when it comes to agriculture policy and Sonny Perdue, Smith said the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.
“There’s no way to sum up, in any one initiative, his greatness,” said Smith, a diversified row crop farmer. “I can’t say enough about Sonny. … He’s going to be good for the whole of rural America. I hate to use clichés, but he’s going to make rural America great again.”
Trump reportedly sang Perdue’s praises at a donor dinner last week, saying that throughout the interview process – which didn’t wrap up until mid-January – he kept thinking back to a November chat with Perdue. Trump said Perdue “knows everything about farming; knows everything about agriculture.”
The nomination of a politician from the South raised some eyebrows among Midwestern ag interests hoping for another Corn Belt secretary to follow former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Perhaps in keeping with the pattern of Trump, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley took to Twitter to express his frustration with the search. He said farmers needed someone with “dirt under fingernails” and suggestedIowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey for the post. Since Perdue has been nominated, he’s added that he wants to know how Midwest agriculture will have a seat at the table, comments he expanded upon with reporters on Tuesday.
“I’ve served with Secretaries of Agriculture or know about Secretaries of Agriculture from the South or from California, and I’ve always felt like the appreciation of the family farm wasn’t expressed and protected as well by them,” said Grassley, who has been an elected official in Washington since 1975. He added a desire to see a Midwesterner in a subcabinet job at USDA.
Grassley said that he’s reserving judgment on Perdue’s nomination “because I thought we needed somebody from the Midwest. That’s where the family farm institution is so strong.”
While Perdue’s fellow Georgians are certainly happy to see someone with an understanding of their state on the cusp of one of the most important jobs in American agriculture, they aren’t anticipating special treatment.
“For us to sit here and say he’s going to be slanted to Georgia … we know Sonny; he’s not going to be that type of secretary,” Andy Lucas, the director of the information department at Georgia Farm Bureau, told Agri-Pulse. “He’s going to look at all the issues and try to create policies that are equitable for all farmers.”
During his time as governor, Perdue was known for his business sense, particularly as it related to his advocacy for trade and increased markets for ag products. Armond Morris, chair of the Georgia Peanut Commission, said Perdue “probably has more experience (with trade policy) than a lot of people would have that would be in that position.”
Morris also noted that while NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico are the top export markets for Georgia peanuts, his commission isn’t totally against renegotiating the agreement – as Trump has promised – if improvements could be made so “the balance of trade would be better for us.”
Perdue, who was educated as a veterinarian, also spearheaded inclusion of a $13 million budget item to build a new poultry laboratory toward the end of his time as governor. Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, told Agri-Pulse the industry went to Perdue with the request during “a tight state budget situation.”
“It has really paid off,” Giles said of the facility, which is now operational, “especially in the area of making sure that we’re monitoring for avian influenza with the latest technology and resources.”
Perdue went into agribusiness after his time as governor, starting Perdue Partners LLC with his cousin David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General stores and now a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and two others. The company facilitates international grain trading, capitalizing on Sonny Perdue’s previous experience owning and operating grain elevators.
Perdue’s business acumen also led to a bet that critics say failed to pay off, a fishing educational center about two hours south of Atlanta in Perry, Georgia. The state borrowed $14 million for the center, but with interest, will eventually pay about $20 million. Critics have said the facility isn’t drawing near the 200,000 annual guests officials predicted for the center, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says won’t be paid off until 2027.
Environmentalists are also on edge about Perdue’s nomination, but they seem to be reserving final judgment for now. Green groups point to a 2014 editorial Perdue wrote in the National Reviewsaying that liberals “have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”
But Perdue hasn’t been a denier of climate change in the past, he was just speaking critically of arguments surrounding the issue (the editorial was actually about Common Core education policies). In 2006, the Governor’s Energy Policy Council – a group Perdue appointed – presented a report that acknowledged the issue of climate change and how the state of Georgia could deal with it. Also considering conservation action taken during his tenure, Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program, offered measured consideration for Perdue’s nomination.
“Compared to other cabinet nominees, and to President-elect Trump himself, perhaps Mr. Perdue seems less hostile to the environment,” Kaplan said just after Perdue was nominated. However, he said Americans “need to know a lot more” about his environmental commitments.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing for Perdue, but Grassley said he expects the hearing to be held “within a couple weeks or less.”
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