Trump Nominates a Secretary of Agriculture (and, No, It’s Not Wendell Berry)

John Collins January 19, 2017

April 17, 2006—Governor Sonny Perdue signs the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act (SB529) into law in Atlanta.

Fill­ing the last remain­ing vacan­cy on his incom­ing administration’s cab­i­net, Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has nom­i­nat­ed for­mer Geor­gia gov­er­nor Son­ny Per­due for sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture. The announce­ment puts an end to weeks of mount­ing spec­u­la­tion over who (on Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 23, pre­sum­ably at around 9:00 a.m.) will be show­ing up to replace Tom Vil­sack as the Depart­ment of Agriculture’s new boss. (Vil­sack resigned from the post one week ear­ly and is report­ed­ly tak­ing his tal­ents to the U.S. Dairy Export Council.)

Once con­firmed and sworn in, Per­due will have the unen­vi­able task of nav­i­gat­ing a third straight year of declin­ing net farm incomes, push­back from farm­ers and ranch­ers on Oba­ma-era envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, heav­i­ly-lever­aged fam­i­ly farms strug­gling to com­pete, a mas­sive glob­al agribusi­ness indus­try hell bent on con­sol­i­da­tion and, per­haps most impor­tant­ly, the draft­ing of the 2018 farm bill — an omnibus law revis­it­ed by Con­gress every five years that gov­erns myr­i­ad aspects of our food supply.

On the human side of the equa­tion, mil­lions of Amer­i­can gro­cery shop­pers increas­ing­ly want to know what they’re eat­ing, where it comes from, whether or not it’s been treat­ed with chem­i­cals and/​or if it’s been genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered in a lab­o­ra­to­ry. The world’s largest pur­vey­ors of insec­ti­cides, her­bi­cides, patent­ed seeds and heav­i­ly-processed food would much pre­fer these details remain a mys­tery and lob­by accord­ing­ly. Caught in the mid­dle, most farm­ers just want to make a decent, reli­able liv­ing that doesn’t involve jump­ing through unnec­es­sary hoops for a hyper­ac­tive Uncle Sam. Depend­ing on where a sec­re­tary of agriculture’s sym­pa­thies lie, he (or she) can tip the scales one way or anoth­er on a num­ber of impor­tant issues.

Here’s what we know about Son­ny Perdue: 

George Ervin Son­ny” Per­due III, 70, is the son of a farmer and has been involved in some aspect of agri­cul­ture for his entire life. In the 1970s, Per­due stud­ied and prac­ticed vet­eri­nary med­i­cine pri­or to start­ing sev­er­al agribusi­ness­es. His most recent ven­ture, found­ed in 2011, is Per­due Part­ners, LLC. Accord­ing to this Bloomberg bio, the LLC oper­ates as a glob­al trad­ing com­pa­ny that facil­i­tates U.S. com­merce focus­ing on the export of U.S. goods and ser­vices through trad­ing, part­ner­ships, con­sult­ing ser­vices and strate­gic acqui­si­tions.” Depend­ing on your faith in pub­lic ser­vants these days, such inti­mate knowl­edge of com­mod­i­ty trad­ing is either a good sign of prac­ti­cal busi­ness expe­ri­ence or deeply trou­bling. But Perdue’s inter­na­tion­al trade cre­den­tials, which include open­ing Georgia’s inter­na­tion­al trade office in Bei­jing while Gov­er­nor, are bound to be a sell­ing point for some.

Per­due got his start in pol­i­tics as a Demo­c­rat and served as a Geor­gia state sen­a­tor from 1991 to 2001, but switched par­ties in 1998. In 2003, he became Georgia’s first Repub­li­can gov­er­nor in 130 years. Under his lead­er­ship, Geor­gia enact­ed some of the harsh­est ille­gal immi­gra­tion mea­sures in the nation, though he’s since scold­ed the Repub­li­can par­ty for fail­ing to be more inclu­sive. While in office Per­due was involved in a land scan­dal that threat­ened to cost Geor­gia tax­pay­ers upwards of $30 mil­lion but received a good deal more nation­al crit­i­cism in 2007 when, dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly bad region­al drought, he asked Geor­gians to pray for rain” on the steps of the Capi­tol. Per­due, a Bap­tist and father of four, was also crit­i­cized for imple­ment­ing strict anti-wel­fare poli­cies that neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed the poor in his state. He is the first cousin of David Per­due, a U.S. Sen­a­tor, and not affil­i­at­ed with Per­due Farms — the chick­en, turkey and pork pro­cess­ing com­pa­ny based in Maryland.

Pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive reactions

Numer­ous polit­i­cal allies and large farm orga­ni­za­tions were quick to praise Trump’s deci­sion. Zip­py Duvall, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion, called Son­ny Perdue’s nom­i­na­tion wel­come news to the nation’s farm­ers and ranch­ers.” At least the new sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture is not a Mon­san­to exec­u­tive. Last Wednes­day, pri­or to announc­ing his pick, Trump met with exec­u­tives from Mon­san­to and Bay­er — two of the world’s five lead­ing biotech com­pa­nies — to dis­cuss their pro­posed $66 bil­lion merg­er. This sent chills down the spines of count­less already trau­ma­tized polit­i­cal junkies. Per­haps, Amer­i­cans should take some com­fort in the fact Trump end­ed up select­ing some­one who actu­al­ly grew up around farm­ing and is pre­sum­ably aware of the strug­gle many farm­ers face.

That said, there’s no doubt Per­due gives envi­ron­men­tal­ists — and the sus­tain­able food move­ment more gen­er­al­ly — plen­ty to wor­ry about. He’s a well-known cli­mate change skep­tic and a dis­ci­ple of big agri­cul­ture. In an arti­cle siz­ing up Trump’s poten­tial picks for the posi­tion and their stance on the issues, Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion pub­lished the fol­low­ing blurb ahead of Perdue’s nomination:

[Son­ny Per­due] sup­ports fac­to­ry farms, pes­ti­cides and genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered crops. In 2009, he signed a bill into law that blocked local com­mu­ni­ties in Geor­gia from reg­u­lat­ing fac­to­ry farms to address ani­mal cru­el­ty, pol­lu­tion or any oth­er haz­ard. He took mon­ey from Mon­san­to and oth­er pes­ti­cide com­pa­nies for his guber­na­to­r­i­al cam­paigns. The Biotech­nol­o­gy Inno­va­tion Orga­ni­za­tion, a front group for the GMO indus­try, named Per­due their 2009 Gov­er­nor of the Year.

Hop­ing Trump might yield to pres­sure and diver­si­fy his large­ly white male cab­i­net at the last minute, many Democ­rats are no doubt dis­ap­point­ed. Abel Mal­don­a­do, the eldest son of Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can farm­work­ers and for­mer Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia was a lead­ing con­tender for the spot as was Elsa Mura­no, for­mer Pres­i­dent of Texas A&M. Sug­gest­ing Trump’s final deci­sion came down to the wire, yes­ter­day evening Mal­don­a­do was tweet­ing pic­tures from Trump Tow­er. He com­ment­ed on the hotel’s ele­gance while enjoy­ing what (in the opin­ion of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times) could eas­i­ly be mis­con­strued for a cel­e­bra­to­ry glass of champagne:

Fol­low­ing the announce­ment, both can­di­dates expressed grat­i­tude for their con­sid­er­a­tion and offered to sup­port Per­due in any way they could. But Per­due has crit­ics on the right as well. Accord­ing to the neo-con­fed­er­ate South­ern Par­ty for Geor­gia web­site, Son­ny Per­due is bought and paid for” by the same spe­cial inter­ests he once crit­i­cized while cam­paign­ing to get elect­ed in the state. Reac­tions to Perdue’s nom­i­na­tion are still com­ing in from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum and Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times will be cov­er­ing his tran­si­tion close­ly in the com­ing weeks.

Why this pick was important

Rur­al vot­ers ulti­mate­ly made Trump’s path to 270 elec­toral votes pos­si­ble and this par­tic­u­lar cab­i­net selec­tion was viewed by many as his first chance to deliv­er a per­ceived win for the eco­nom­i­cal­ly strug­gling farm­ing and min­ing com­mu­ni­ties that sup­port­ed him. Perdue’s pri­or­i­ties and poli­cies will deter­mine if he meets rur­al expec­ta­tions, but much more than agri­cul­ture falls under the USDA’s umbrel­la” and the department’s poli­cies affect every American.

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln estab­lished the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture in 1862. Pleased with its progress two-and-a-half years lat­er, he called it pre­cise­ly the people’s Depart­ment.” Today the USDA, which con­sists of 29 dif­fer­ent agen­cies and ser­vices that employ more than 100,000 peo­ple, is respon­si­ble for facil­i­tat­ing and imple­ment­ing fed­er­al pol­i­cy in a dizzy­ing num­ber of areas. In 2015, the Department’s annu­al oper­at­ing bud­get was $139.7 billion.

Both the For­est Ser­vice (FS), which man­ages 193 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands, nation­al forests and grass­lands (mak­ing it the largest nat­ur­al resource research orga­ni­za­tion in the world) and Food and Nutri­tion Ser­vices (FNS), for exam­ple, fall under USDA super­vi­sion. In 2014, FNS over­saw the dis­tri­b­u­tion of $74.1 bil­lion in food assis­tance (SNAP) to 46.5 mil­lion low-income Americans.

Often crit­i­cized for using tax pay­er mon­ey to pick win­ners and losers” in the com­mod­i­ty mar­kets, USDA is per­haps best known for the peren­ni­al con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of farm sub­si­dies. But the agency also has offices in every state, con­ducts year-round agri­cul­tur­al research and per­forms nation­wide food safe­ty inspec­tions. In addi­tion to drum­ming up domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al mar­ket­ing strate­gies, which include the for­mu­la­tion and imple­men­ta­tion of nation­al organ­ic stan­dards and pro­duc­tion prac­tices, USDA also has an agency aimed specif­i­cal­ly at rur­al devel­op­ment (RD).

Under Sec­re­tary Vil­sack, the RD office imple­ment­ed numer­ous pro­grams aimed at revi­tal­iz­ing” rur­al economies. Indeed, for the last eight years, a steady stream of press releas­es announc­ing new afford­able hous­ing ini­tia­tives, high-speed inter­net infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment projects, small busi­ness grants, nutri­tion pro­grams to com­bat child­hood obe­si­ty, sup­port for util­i­ty coop­er­a­tives and renew­able ener­gy incen­tives for exist­ing rur­al busi­ness­es (and more) could be found on the news­room” sec­tion of the Department’s web­site. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, assess­ing the effi­ca­cy of these pro­grams — deter­min­ing whether or not they help the peo­ple who need it most — is nowhere near as easy. What is clear, how­ev­er, is that recent fed­er­al efforts have failed to ade­quate­ly ease the eco­nom­ic pain being felt in count­less rur­al communities.

In a recent Grist arti­cle, The Exit Inter­view: Ag Sec­re­tary Vil­sack on Obama’s Food Lega­cy,” Nathanael John­son dis­sects the pop­u­lar crit­i­cism among food activists that the out-going admin­is­tra­tion essen­tial­ly rolled over and let cor­po­rate agribusi­ness steer the ship. On whether such cri­tiques of Vilsack’s per­for­mance were fair, John­son writes, Vil­sack pre­ferred to wield the car­rot rather than the stick in try­ing to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment. The USDA rolled out one vol­un­tary rule after anoth­er, empha­siz­ing coop­er­a­tion and part­ner­ship rather than reg­u­la­tion and enforce­ment.” Vol­un­tary or not, undo­ing any reg­u­la­tions that make farm­ers, ranch­ers, min­ers and ener­gy work­ers jobs hard­er or less prof­itable has become a cor­ner­stone of Trump’s pledge to rur­al Amer­i­ca. The envi­ron­men­tal impli­ca­tions of this promise are enormous.

Wait­ing until the last minute

Trump’s drawn out selec­tion process caused plen­ty of frus­tra­tion in the Ag world. As ear­ly as Dec. 14, Sec­re­tary Vil­sack was express­ing con­cern that Trump had not yet announced his cab­i­net pick. Pri­or to that, in Novem­ber, the man assigned to assem­ble Trump’s agri­cul­tur­al team, a lob­by­ist for the agri­cul­ture indus­try named Michael Tor­rey, abrupt­ly resigned when Trump banned lob­by­ists from being involved in his tran­si­tion. (Before con­grat­u­lat­ing Trump for mak­ing good on cam­paign rhetoric, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the army of well-con­nect­ed mil­lion­aires now on his cab­i­net has ren­dered most lob­by­ists obso­lete redundancies.)

As the weeks passed, numer­ous poten­tial can­di­dates made the trip to Trump Tow­er or Mar-a-lago to meet with Trump and/​or vice-pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence. Though a series of fron­trun­ners emerged in the head­lines, top-picks came and went as agri­cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tions began wor­ry­ing fur­ther delay would com­pro­mise a smooth tran­si­tion.” All told, Trump may very well hold the record as the pres­i­dent-elect who wait­ed the longest to announce his pick for agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary. The last five pres­i­dents, at least, announced their selec­tions short­ly after Elec­tion Day or some­time in December.

But the ques­tion of who should lead the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture — an aca­d­e­m­ic, states­man or actu­al farmer — has been the sub­ject of debate since the agency’s con­cep­tion. In his essay, Lincoln’s Agri­cul­tur­al Lega­cy, Wayne D. Ras­mussen writes that short­ly after sign­ing the bill that estab­lished the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Lin­coln began receiv­ing much unso­licit­ed advice, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the columns of the farm press, on the appoint­ment of the first Com­mis­sion­er of Agriculture”:

Some urged the appoint­ment of a dis­tin­guished sci­en­tist, oth­ers an out­stand­ing prac­ti­cal” man. A few peri­od­i­cal edi­tors were cer­tain that one of their num­ber would be the best choice. How­ev­er, Lin­coln turned to Isaac New­ton, a farmer who had served as chief of the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tion of the Patent Office since August 1861

A sim­i­lar debate has tak­en place in recent weeks and Trump has been the recip­i­ent of sim­i­lar­ly unso­licit­ed advice from a vari­ety of news­pa­pers and farm pub­li­ca­tions across the coun­try. The major­i­ty were writ­ten by farm­ers in sup­port of the idea that an actu­al farmer is best suit­ed to run the Depart­ment of Agriculture. 

The strug­gle continues

For sus­tain­abil­i­ty advo­cates, this was nev­er going to go well. Once Bernie Sanders left the race, this elec­tion cycle offered the food move­ment lit­tle in the way of a promis­ing can­di­date. Hillary Clin­ton, who food activists nick­named the Bride of Franken­food” for her finan­cial ties to Mon­san­to and oth­er agri­chem­i­cal cor­po­ra­tions, remained silent (or uncon­vinc­ing) on too many of the issues this move­ment finds important.

In coun­tries all over the world, resis­tance to cor­po­ra­tion-con­trolled agri­cul­ture is spread­ing. As pub­lic aware­ness grows, the threats indus­tri­al meth­ods and fac­to­ry farms pose to soil, water, air, nutri­tion and cli­mate are going to be increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to ignore. Clash­es between the pow­er­ful eco­nom­ic forces heav­i­ly invest­ed in stay­ing this cur­rent course, and the politi­cians with whom they are aligned, are inevitable. The fight for a less eco­log­i­cal­ly destruc­tive approach to food isn’t going any­where. You can’t put that tooth­paste back in the tube.

Trump has repeat­ed­ly claimed that his admin­is­tra­tion will work on behalf of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, not cor­po­ra­tions or spe­cial inter­ests. Tomor­row we’ll all have a new pres­i­dent, and in rur­al Amer­i­ca the world’s lead­ing chem­i­cal, ener­gy, biotech and food com­pa­nies will be poised to fur­ther con­sol­i­date their wealth and pow­er. Son­ny Per­due is unlike­ly to stand in their way.

George Ervin Son­ny” Per­due III will be the nation’s 31st sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture. (Pho­to: wepar​ty​pa​tri​ots​.com)

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John Collins is the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. He lives between Min­neapo­lis and La Pointe, Wis­con­sin, a vil­lage on Made­line Island in Lake Superior.
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