Trump to Nominate Sonny Perdue as Agriculture Secretary

  • Pick is former governor of Georgia, cousin of U.S. senator
  • Perdue met Trump in November and talked about commodities

Sonny Perdue.

Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg

President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday named Sonny Perdue III, the former governor of Georgia, as his choice for the next U.S. secretary of agriculture.

“From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land,” Trump said in a statement.

Perdue, 70, would succeed Tom Vilsack, who left Jan. 13. Perdue met with Trump on Nov. 30 and told reporters they talked about agricultural commodities traded domestically and internationally.

"Sonny will work hard to advance smart agriculture policies that will help our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities across the country,” Senator David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia and the nominee’s cousin, said in a statement. “I could not be more proud of my cousin."

Senator Perdue, who may be Trump’s strongest ally in the Senate with the expected departure of attorney general nominee and Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, had urged the president-elect to name his relative to the post.

Trump rode to his election victory partly on strong support from voters in rural areas clamoring for an economic turnaround. Farm incomes, which reached a record high in 2013, are expected to fall for a third successive year while debt levels have climbed.

For more on how U.S. farmers are struggling with debt, click here

While Trump’s team has yet to discuss agriculture in much detail, the president-elect’s statements during his campaign covered areas that could have major implications for agricultural businesses. The U.S. is a major exporter of crops and other farm commodities, and that flow of goods may be disrupted if Trump follows through with a pledge to reshape trading relationships with China and other countries. Such changes might also affect global commodity prices.

Additionally, if U.S. immigration laws are enforced more strictly, business owners may face labor shortages. Undocumented workers comprise a major slice of the U.S. farm and agricultural labor force. On the other hand, farmers may stand to gain from a promised relaxation of environmental regulations.

As head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Perdue would oversee about 100,000 employees and about $140 billion across various programs. He would also need to get to grips with the 2018 Farm Bill. Rural America’s new-found political influence will help shape the legislation, Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and a Trump adviser, has said.

Slow Pace

Perdue -- no relation to the family of the same name that owns chicken producer Perdue Farms Inc. -- was born in Perry, Georgia. 

A graduate of the University of Georgia, he served as a state senator before becoming the first Republican governor of the state in 130 years in 2003. He was known for promoting pro-business policies while working to streamline government to improve its efficiency. He stepped down in 2011 and founded Perdue Partners LLC, an Atlanta-based trading company.

"He’s a talented politician. He seems capable," said former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in an interview before the choice was made. Glickman, who served under President Bill Clinton, knows Perdue from their work at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based research group that draws its leadership from both parties.

The slow pace of Trump’s nominations -- USDA secretary is the last cabinet post to be filled -- has frustrated farm groups, who note the importance of rural voters to the president-elect’s victory in November. Still, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, lauded the choice of Perdue.

Immigration, Trade

"He is a businessman who recognizes the impact immigration reform, trade agreements and regulation have on a farmer’s bottom line," said Zippy Duvall, a Georgia native and president of the Washington-based Farm Bureau.

One environmental group criticized the pick shortly after it was reported earlier by Fox News, calling Perdue a climate-change skeptic who supported the expansion of massive chicken farms in his state while governor.

"Given Perdue’s position with a global agribusiness trading company and his actions as governor, we are concerned that Perdue will use his position at the USDA to prioritize the profits of big agribusiness and trade over the interests of American farmers, workers and consumers," said Kari Hamerschlag, a deputy director with Washington-based Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

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