WASHINGTON, April 24, 2017 – Sonny Perdue, who has promised to be a forceful advocate for farmers within the Trump administration, is set to take over as the 31st agriculture secretary on Tuesday after easily winning Senate confirmation, 87-11.
The former Georgia governor was scheduled to be sworn in early Tuesday at the Supreme Court before heading to the Agriculture Department headquarters on the National Mall to address USDA employees. Later in the day he will join a group of farmers in a meeting with President Trump at the White House.
“Rural America has waited long enough for a leader at USDA,” the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow said Monday ahead of the Senate vote. Perdue is “desperately needed by farmers and families and all Americans who rely on USDA.”
It was the first time in three decades that any senator had voted against an agriculture secretary, but Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., dismissed the limited Democratic opposition this time as a reflection of the polarized political climate.
Perdue’s cousin, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., presided over the Senate during the debate but voted “present.”
Nearly 700 farm groups endorsed Perdue in early February, and they’ve been eager to have Perdue in place at USDA so he can influence the White House on trade policy and begin making decisions on a range of issues that have been languishing at USDA since the beginning of the administration. The pending issues include an interim final rule issued by the Obama administration to aid livestock and poultry producers in contract disputes with processors.
Perdue “understands the impact farm labor shortages, trade agreements and regulations have on a farmer’s bottom line and ability to stay in business from one season to the next,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a fellow Georgian.
“There’s important work ahead for the secretary, and he’ll need to address these challenges against the backdrop of the biggest drop in farm prices and income we’ve seen in decades.”
Perdue is getting off to a far later start than his predecessor, Tom Vilsack, who was confirmed on President Obama’s first day.
Perdue’s nomination wasn’t announced until the day before Trump’s nomination, and then it took until March for Perdue to get the needed ethics clearance necessary for the Senate to move forward with considering him. Perdue promised to move his agribusiness interests into a blind trust.
At his confirmation hearing March 23, Perdue pledged to be a “tenacious advocate and fighter” for farmers. “Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” he said.
Roberts said that during the hearing Perdue “demonstrated real understanding” of the issues facing U.S. farmers. “Now more than ever agriculture needs a voice, an advocate, and a champion at the highest levels of government, and Gov. Perdue has been nominated to serve in exactly that role,” Roberts said.
Stabenow said she expected Perdue to be a “strong partner” with Congress when lawmakers begin writing the next farm bill.
Other Democrats supporting Perdue included Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who is counting on him picking up on the attention Trump has given to the dairy industry’s concerns about Canada’s new milk pricing policy. Baldwin said the administration needs to provide direct assistance to U.S. producers.
“The first order of business is for the new agriculture secretary and the Trump administration to act on restrictive Canadian trade barriers that are hurting American dairy farmers and processors,” Baldwin said. “We need to make sure that Canada rescinds their unfair policy and plays by the rules.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he believes Perdue understands Delaware’s chicken industry and would be counting on him to push back against the president’s proposed cuts in USDA’s budget. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who is the Senate’s only working farmer, called Perdue a “standup man” and said he had “high expectations” for him.
Agriculture groups joined the Farm Bureau in welcoming the Senate vote.
“Having endured months of the current farm crisis and drastic policy changes in Washington without a Secretary of Agriculture, family farmers and ranchers are relieved that Sonny Perdue has finally been confirmed to lead” USDA, said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents smaller scale farmers, said Perdue has “expressed his commitment to supporting the diversity of American agriculture – including small and mid-sized family farms, organic agriculture, and local and regional food systems.”
The National Corn Growers Association echoed the industry-wide complaint that USDA has gone too long without a confirmed secretary. “There are still more than 200 political appointments at USDA that have yet to be made. We strongly urge the administration to move quickly in filling these positions.”
Chad Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers, said his members are “confident that under Secretary Perdue’s thoughtful leadership, USDA will be a strong and vibrant agency that advocates for agriculture, galvanizes farmers around shared goals, and spurs continued growth in the amazing productivity of the United States food system.”
The National Cotton Council’s chairman, Ronnie Lee, said Perdue is “highly qualified to lead USDA and he can help ensure a strong and viable agricultural and rural economy.”
John Bode, president and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association, said that the bipartisan support Perdue received from former agriculture secretaries as well as his broad support from farm groups “speaks to his capabilities.”