On his first day at work, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told employees, “I don’t cage too well.” So it was apt that the peripatetic Perdue was on the road this week, speaking at the FFA convention in Indianapolis and touring the prairie pothole region of the northern Plains, when he reached his six-month mark at USDA. Ag leaders rate Perdue highly as an ambassador for agriculture and agree with his policy decisions.
In essence, Perdue gets a grade of A*, with a footnote that the former Georgia governor has spent most of his tenure waiting for White House nomination and Senate confirmation of his executive team. So far, only three policymakers — Deputy Secretary Steve Censky, Undersecretary for Trade Ted McKinney and Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulation Gregory Ibach — have been confirmed out of the eight political appointees that follow the secretary’s lead in putting administration policy into effect.
“He’s basically been shorthanded,” said president Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “I think another six months in, with a full team, ask us that question.”
Since taking office on April 25, Perdue has given schools a break on salt and whole-grain levels in school meals; killed the so-called GIPSA rule on fair play in livestock marketing; and redrawn USDA’s organizational chart, creating the job that McKinney fills. All three steps generated controversy. Perdue’s next move on reorganization will reach into the local offices that carry out USDA’s crop subsidy and land stewardship programs, says a farm lobbyist. It, too, could create more dissension.
Perdue is popular in farm country as a vocal advocate of agricultural exports, a key part of farmer income and a lodestar of Farm Belt philosophy for decades. He is credited with helping to dissuade President Trump from scrapping NAFTA by showing him a map of states that would be affected and reminding him that rural America was pivotal in electing Trump. “He’s been a real strong voice in the administration on trade,” said Duvall, a fellow Georgian. Trained as a veterinarian, Perdue is only the third agriculture secretary to work in agriculture as an adult.
“It’s clear the Trump administration’s USDA has an ear for its constituents,” said Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, citing the decisions on school food and the GIPSA rule. The House Agriculture chairman, Michael Conaway of Texas, counted Perdue as “a fierce advocate for production agriculture,” meaning large-scale, conventional agriculture which accounts for the bulk of U.S. farm production.
The largest hog and cattle groups opposed the GIPSA rule as a threat to marketing arrangements that pay premiums for meeting targets such as livestock that yield high-quality meat. Small farmers, particularly poultry growers who work under contract, say meat processors have too much power. The rule would have made it easier for a producer to prove unfair treatment.
“That’s a no-win situation,” said Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee. “We knew it when we gave it to him. Whatever you do, it’s not going to make people happy.” Peterson was Agriculture Committee chairman when the 2008 farm law forced USDA to resolve complaints of discriminatory practices by large meat processors. Congress blocked USDA from implementing the GIPSA rule for years. It appeared in the final weeks of the Obama era.
The demise of the GIPSA rule “reflects negatively on the administration’s willingness to work with small farmers,” said Greg Fogel of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Rural advocates objected sharply to Perdue’s elimination of the post of undersecretary for rural development at the same time that he created the trade undersecretary position. Perdue appointed an “assistant to the secretary” to handle rural economic development, which he described as an elevation in importance. Congress has yet to let go of the issue. The Senate Agriculture Committee also has said Perdue needs legislative approval to change the titles and duties of his undersecretaries to reflect his new organizational chart.
Perdue was Trump’s final cabinet nominee, announced the day before the inauguration. He had a historically late start at USDA, three months into Trump’s term. The agriculture secretary, like other cabinet members, typically takes office in the first days, often the first day, of an administration. The White House has been slow in announcing its nominees for the top USDA jobs.
For all that, Perdue has steered a smooth transition from the Obama administration, say ag leaders. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, says Perdue “understands that listening is the first step in addressing the issues facing our farmers and rural communities…I hope he stops by Michigan.”