Trump picks southerner over Midwest candidate for Agriculture

Source: By Susan Heavey, David Alexander and Doina Chiacu, Reuters • Posted: Friday, January 20, 2017

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump officially announced Sonny Perdue as his choice for secretary of agriculture on Thursday, selecting a former Georgia governor over candidates from the Midwest states that dominate U.S. agricultural exports.

Perdue, who was on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee during his presidential campaign, has yet to be confirmed in the post by the Republican-led Senate.

He was elected to two terms as governor of Georgia, a leading producer of cotton and peanuts, serving from 2003 to 2011. Before that, he was a state senator, representing a rural swath of the state about 100 miles (160 km) south of Atlanta.

“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,” Trump said in a statement. Trump takes office on Friday.

At least one Midwestern Senator raised questions about Perdue’s preparedness.

Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from the top corn and soybean state of Iowa, tweeted: “I’m interested in how MidWest Ag will hv a seat at the table.”

Key issues facing the agricultural community include trade and immigration. Georgia accounted for just 2 percent of total U.S. agriculture exports in 2015. Ranking 15th among all states in the value of its agricultural production, it generated $9.122 billion in commodity receipts, according to USDA data. Iowa ranked second with $27.674 billion. California is top, with $47.008 billion.

Perdue acknowledged the concerns in an email to Trump’s agricultural advisory committee.

“While I know some may be disappointed over regional or geographical concerns, I promise each of you I will diligently apply myself to learn all I can regarding the needs and challenges in this vast, wonderful industry we call American Agriculture, or nature’s factories,” Perdue said in a email to the advisory committee.

Grassley, whose Midwest state helped deliver Trump the presidency, stressed in a statement the need for the secretary to understand farming in the Midwest, “the strength of American agriculture.”

Trade is seen as critical to reviving a moribund farm economy, where incomes have been falling with lower grain prices. Farm incomes in 2016 are expected to have hit their lowest levels since 2009.

Agriculture relies heavily on seasonal and casual labor and farmers are concerned tough immigration rules could make it harder to find workers while raising costs. Trump has raised tensions on immigration with his pledge to build a wall at the Mexican-U.S. border.

Four of the past five agriculture secretaries have come from Midwest states. Perdue, if he is confirmed, would be the first from a southern state since Mike Espy, who was from Mississippi and served from January 1993 to December 1994.

Perdue, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine and served in the U.S. Air Force, founded a grain and fertilizer business in Georgia.

“I’m going to champion the concerns of American agriculture and work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families in this new role,” he said in a statement.

Perdue’s cousin David Perdue is serving his first term representing Georgia in the U.S. Senate. The nominee is not related to the late chicken magnate Frank Perdue.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, David Alexander and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Mark Weinraub, Karl Plume and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Frances Kerry and David Gregorio)