A single day before the inauguration, President Donald Trump filled the last vacancy on his cabinet, naming former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue secretary of agriculture. The son of a Georgia farmer and a veterinarian by training, Perdue, now 70, entered politics in 1991 as a Democratic state senator. He helped shape Georgia’s agriculture policy through the ’90s and switched to the Republican party in 1998.
In 2002, Perdue became the state’s first GOP governor in more than 130 years. During his eight years in office, Perdue enacted many conservative policies, including cracking down on illegal immigration and creating photo ID rules for Georgia voters. Since leaving office in 2011, Perdue has run Perdue Partners, a global agribusiness trading company.
Since the election, Trump has interviewed half a dozen candidates for the agriculture secretary post. Many speculated that his team hoped to select a woman or Latino for the position to add diversity to his cabinet, which is predominantly white, male, and conservative. The selection of Perdue, however, adds to the white-male count and makes Trump the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1988 to lack a Latino leader on his cabinet. (Of Trump’s 15 cabinet selections, only three are women and only one is Black.)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which operates on a budget of more than $140 billion and employs more than 100,000 people, executes federal government policy in a wide variety of areas, including food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, and nutrition. The agency oversees the national school lunch program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as food safety and farm policy programs, the Forest Service, and various land and water conservation efforts.
On the day the Trump team announced Perdue’s selection, we talked with food policy leaders across the country to get their reflections on the pick. Some say they feel heartened that Perdue has both experience governing and a deep knowledge of agriculture and its accompanying issues. Others worry about Perdue’s connection to Big Ag, support of corporate interests over small family farmers, and disregard for environmental issues like water pollution and climate change. While some are optimistic about his ability to advocate for American farmers, others are preparing to fight.
What is your overall reaction to Trump’s selection of Perdue to run USDA?
Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of Sustainability, George Washington University (and former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama administration): I’m not going to pre-judge, and I’m hoping the goal of all former secretaries and deputy secretaries is that we help Governor Perdue be successful. Those of us who have been at leadership posts at USDA in the past, we care deeply about rural America, and we care deeply about farmers and ranchers. He may not look at me, Kathleen Merrigan—local ag, sustainable, organic, a New Englander—and immediately see an ally and a colleague, but I hope to be that, because there are too many of my friends who are impacted by the decisions he will make.
Dale Moore, Director of Public Policy, American Farm Bureau (and former USDA Chief of Staff under George W. Bush): We’re excited we have someone being named who clearly understands agriculture, has worked in agriculture, and knows who we as farmers and ranchers are. I have to believe we’re on the same page. My current boss, the President of the American Farm Bureau Zippy Duvall, is from Georgia. He has first-hand experience in working with Governor Perdue and has indicated he’s a strong administrator and was a great manager of the state during his tenure as governor. He’s tough and firm and keeps everyone pulling on the oars together. My boss and colleagues from Georgia are telling me he’s going to make a good secretary and is certainly someone who will stand up and be a strong advocate for agriculture.
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch: We’re in for a tough four years. Perdue is just the latest in a string of candidate appointments that are not fit to lead the agencies they will head. He once famously prayed for rain as a response to the drought in Georgia. We have our work cut out for us for the next four years, but we’ll go toe-to-toe with them to protect our existing protections for our food, water, and climate.
Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety: Perdue has massively promoted the growth of terrible chicken factories in Georgia. In 2009, he signed a law that forbade counties from regulating them, including their water pollution—basically preempting any county control over horrific impacts, even saying counties couldn’t have higher standards on animal welfare. He’s a tool of the agribusiness and biotechnology industries. He’s also a climate change denier. Instead of actually understanding climate science, it seems like he’d rather pray for rain. You don’t want someone in agriculture who denies what we know to be solid science.
Ferd Hoefner, Senior Strategic Advisor, National Sustainable Agriculture Commission: Perdue is a nominee that is seasoned in politics and governing, as well as in agriculture; in that sense we believe he has the skills and experience to oversee a department with 17 distinct agencies and an annual budget of nearly $140 billion. Where we have concerns is with the anti-regulatory climate that has swept through Congress over the last several years and seems to also be the position of the new president. There are many important regulations related to farmer and farmworkers’ rights, pollution and conservation, and public health that we strongly stand behind and would strongly oppose dismantling. If Perdue and the Trump Administration choose to listen to the voices of family farmers—not just large, corporate interests—we believe they’ll be able to strike the right balance between public and private interests.
What are your biggest concerns about Perdue taking the reins?
Michael Dimock, President, Roots of Change: His challenge will be working with a president who is totally urban and has uttered next to nothing about an agriculture or food policy. We only can discern based on his other cabinet appointments that fast food and low-cost labor are held in high esteem. Consequently, I fear, as with many other sectors, the coming four years at the federal level will be focused on defending gains made in the last eight years.
Katherine Paul, Associate Director, Organic Consumers Association: Perdue has clearly not made the connection between industrial agriculture and global warming. Contrary to what Trump and Perdue would have us believe, [the industrial agriculture model] is not prosperous for small, rural farmers who each year are required to purchase more and more chemicals to fight the evolution of pesticide-resistant “super-weeds” and “super-pests.” Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, has the potential to draw down and sequester CO2 in the soil—making it a critical part of the solution to global warming. The future of agriculture lies in the regenerative model that protects the financial interests of rural farmers, protects the environment, protects rural Americans from pesticide exposure, and actively combats global warming.
Chellie Pingree, U.S. Representative (D-ME): Recently we’ve made progress on the GIPSA [Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration] rule, the animal welfare rule, other things that have come out of USDA. There are so many programs that have come out of USDA that I don’t want to see eliminated, and I don’t want him to go back to putting his focus on commodity agriculture, or losing the emphasis on the things consumers care so much about—knowing more about what’s in their food, being able to buy food locally, having healthier food in school lunches. There’s so much progress that’s been made, and, man, I’d hate to see that go in the opposite direction.
What do you see as some of the most pressing issues the new agriculture secretary will face?
Ferd Hoefner: The incoming agriculture secretary has quite a lot on his plate—a new Farm Bill will need to be finalized in 2018 and the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization is long overdue. There are also pending rules, like the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, that need to be finalized. We hope Mr. Perdue will address this pending docket of work with the dedication and expediency it deserves.
Karen Ross, Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture: For those of us who grow a large number of specialty crops and are on a coast with ports of entry, we worry a great deal about the funding and resources necessary to protect us from infestations of invasive pests or the spread of animal disease. His background as a veterinarian will certainly equip him well to watch for those kinds of issues and make sure we have the resources necessary to exclude them and, should they break through our borders, eradicate them as soon as possible and keep our markets open. From the California perspective, we’ve been very open about the need for some sort of program to allow temporary guest workers. The existing program is not user-friendly, and we think it could be improved to work for the kinds of specialty crops we grow—and the seasonality of the crops that we grow. I think there’s some real opportunities for the secretary to play a leadership role with his colleagues at the Department of Labor to improve the agricultural guest worker program.
Wenonah Hauter: I think we need to address the corporate control and consolidation of the food system. Rather than let big agribusiness pressure regulators to prioritize their needs over the protection of independent farmers, food safety, worker safety, and the environment, we need the USDA to rein in abusive practices by big meatpackers, preserve meat inspection, and other food safety efforts, and level the playing field for organic and sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing with this new administration.
Kathleen Merrigan: My biggest concern is immigration reform. The rhetoric in the campaign was frightening and divisive, and a lot of the focus around what we need to do moving forward in the dialogue of this election seems to be about Dreamers. That’s really important stuff. The labor that underpins not only production agriculture, but the whole food service industry—there’s not an industry that’s more dependent on undocumented workers than the food and agriculture industry. We’re at a crisis [point]—and we need to fix it, not make it worse.
Antonio Tovar-Aguilar, Project Director, Farmworker Association of Florida: In my personal opinion, I see three big hot potatoes on his plate: commerce, labor, and entitlements. America is an avid consumer of all sorts of food, some of which is not produced in the country, and the Department of Agriculture certifies most of that commerce. American overproduction of some agricultural items also goes overseas, but the administration navigates with a protectionist flag. Are they going to function in a pro-trade or protectionist way? Labor is the other pressing issue. The administration is against immigration, but they still need more workers, and they are not going to come from Americans, who demonstrated in the financial crisis that they are unwilling to join the agricultural workforce.
Chellie Pingree: The dairy industry in the Northeast is really struggling right now, and a lot of my colleagues are anxious to get to work on that. Those problems are in his lap right now, and I would hope he can see regions like mine as worthy of his attention and not just look at what’s best for the West and Midwest.
Andy Kimbrell: The USDA just came out with their proposed 340 regulations, new regulations on biotechnology, last week. They’re only proposed at this point, and that’s worrisome to us. We don’t like a lot of them, but at least it’s some regulatory reform. This new secretary will be the one either making them stronger (unlikely), keeping them the same (possibly), or weakening them (very possibly). That responsibility will be given to the man who was named Biotech Governor the Year in 2009.
What questions should be asked of Perdue during the confirmation hearing?
Ferd Hoefner: Important questions, in our opinion, would concern how Perdue plans to balance the need for a strong agricultural economy with the need for sustainability in agriculture and conservation of our natural resources. How does he propose, for example, to give family farmers the tools they need to farm and ranch more sustainably without disproportionately hurting their bottom line? We would also love to hear his views on equity in the food system. How can we ensure that historically underserved farmers are given equal opportunities and a level playing field in an agricultural economy that is increasingly consolidated and corporate-driven? And of course, with the 2018 Farm Bill fast approaching, questions regarding the programs and policies he plans to support in this piece of hallmark legislation would be welcome.
Andy Kimbrell: I think it’d be very important to go over his record and talk about the hundreds of thousands of dollars given to his campaign when he was running for office. Given the fact he’s Biotechnology Governor of the Year, and the new biotech regulations are pending—how does he think biotechnology should be regulated? I also think as a Republican, how does he support the fact he’s proposed county and local control over federal impact agriculture? How does he feel about the huge government subsidies of CAFOs? Since the USDA runs the entire organic standards—is he a strong supporter of organic? Is he a strong supporter of keeping the integrity of organic and making sure organic continues to grow?
Wenonah Hauter: We are concerned that the USDA under Perdue will roll back the fair farm rules recently released by the agency that help level the playing field for livestock producers. I would definitely like to see a question about what his position is on how to rein in the abusive practices used by meatpackers and chicken companies. Also, we anticipate the agency will continue to privatize meat inspections, which essentially deregulates company slaughterhouses. This is really bad for both consumers and workers, and I’d like to see that addressed in the hearing.
Chellie Pingree: From my perspective, there have been so many new opportunities in the organic market. We’ve seen new people come online as dairy farmers and dairy farmers who weren’t doing very well finding new markets with organic milk. There’s a shortage of organic commodities all over the country, and I think someone should be asking him what he would propose to do. Would he be willing to support things like the transition program and organic research and stuff that we really care about? I’m also really interested in food waste, and the USDA and EPA jointly have a goal to reduce food waste in half by 2030. I want to know if he’s going to keep that goal at the USDA and how he intends to work with the EPA on that.
What is your greatest hope for Perdue during his (likely) tenure?
Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director, Organic Trade Association: Perdue comes from a state where the organic sector has grown markedly in the last few years. Agriculture is Georgia’s biggest industry, and the Georgia Department of Agriculture has helped more farmers take advantage of the rapidly growing and profitable organic market by providing funding and training for farmers wanting to go organic. We are deeply encouraged that Perdue’s home state recognizes the value of organic and the opportunity it offers for family farmers and rural communities. Organic is good for rural communities, organic is good for jobs, and we are excited to make our case with the new administration.
Antonio Tovar-Aguilar: I have very low expectations of every single one of Trump’s nominations. However, if Perdue implements good judgment and independence from Trump, I would expect, as a minimum, that he would respect the law, not take personal advantage of his position, and use his appointment to improve workers’ conditions and the nutrition of underserved families. That is my hope.
Kathleen Merrigan: My biggest hope is that the new secretary and his team come in with a deep appreciation for diversity. Diversity of the kinds of production enterprises that can be successful across the country, diversity in the kind of voices they listen to and people they engage with. I hope that is something that Perdue and his leaders will embrace.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.