Trump’s ag secretary pick met with mixed reactions locally

Source: By Paul Hammel and Joseph Morton, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Friday, January 20, 2017

LINCOLN — Local reaction was mostly positive to the nomination Thursday of the first non-Midwesterner in more than two decades to lead the Agriculture Department.

President-elect Donald Trump tapped former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a trained veterinarian who ran grain trading and trucking businesses.

The last three agriculture secretaries were from Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska, where corn, cattle and soybeans are king. By contrast, Georgia is a state where peanuts, chickens and cotton are grown.

But backers of the selection said that Perdue’s background in agriculture and government means that he will understand the needs of areas where corn and cattle pay the bills.

“I think he’ll be able to relate how this is important to a state’s economy,” said Todd Sneller, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

The head of the state’s largest agricultural group, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, hailed the pick, saying that Perdue “will be a strong voice for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

“Today, the individual who leads USDA must be more than just an advocate, but also an ambassador for American agriculture. We believe Sonny can fulfill that role,” said Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson.

But the head of the Nebraska Farmers Union was more guarded in his assessment.

“He’s going to come with a more Southern crops perspective,” said John Hansen of the Farmers Union. “There are very significant regional differences and perspectives.”

Those differences, Hansen said, could translate into different views on ethanol and renewable fuel standards, which are important issues for Nebraska.

Perdue, 70, is the last Cabinet post to be filled by Trump.

Perdue is a farmer’s son with a veterinary medicine degree who built businesses in grain trading and trucking before becoming the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction.

He comes from the small city of Bonaire in rural central Georgia, and is not related to or affiliated with the food company Perdue or the poultry producer Perdue Farms.

The nomination of a Southerner raised the prospect of change in U.S. farm policy, which has long been favorable to the crops grown in the Midwest. Congressional battles over massive farm bills every five years often divide along regional lines. While Midwesterners want programs that favor corn and soybeans, Southerners have pushed for subsidy programs that are more favorable to rice and cotton.

Kelly Brunkhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board and Corn Growers Association, said he’s planning to wait and see what positions Perdue takes on issues like ag exports and ethanol.

“We’re just excited to finally have a nomination,” Brunkhorst said.

Johnathan Hladik of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, said he hopes Perdue follows through on Trump’s “campaign rhetoric” to help rural entrepreneurs and protect family farms and ranches.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said in a press release that as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, she looks forward to vetting Perdue. She said that “as a veterinarian, Mr. Perdue understands the agriculture industry” and noted that he has executive branch experience as a former governor.

“Throughout the last eight years, the picture painted of the state of our agriculture economy is far rosier than the realities on the ground,” Ernst said. “Iowans lead our nation in pork, soybean and corn production, and folks want strong leadership and forward thinking in the Department of Agriculture. Too often, agricultural priorities fall to the wayside, and we need to address head-on the many urgent issues that plague our farmers and producers.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Thursday in a statement that he wants to talk to Perdue about “the unique interests of Midwest agriculture,” including trade and regulatory burdens.

“Nebraskans feed the world and our agriculture secretary needs to understand what we bring to the table,” Sasse said.

A coalition of hunting and conservation organizations cheered the nomination of Perdue. He is a quail hunter who passed conservation legislation in Georgia and understands the balance between farming and habitat on private lands, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Many farm-state lawmakers and agriculture groups grew concerned as Trump approached his inauguration without having named an agriculture secretary candidate.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said earlier this week that he was looking for someone to run USDA who had dirt under his fingernails.