Meet Secretary Sonny Perdue – new man at the helm of USDA

Sara Wyant Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

Sonny Perdue was confirmed as the 31st Secretary of Agriculture just over two weeks ago, but he’s already had dozens of USDA meetings, traveled to Kansas, Iowa and Arkansas, met with members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, and even sat down with a few media outlets for one-on-one interviews.

Our Agri-Pulse team interviewed Perdue on May 3 to learn more about the former Georgia governor and his key priorities, much of which he said were shaped during visits with 75 Senators as part of his lengthy confirmation process.

The number one, two and three Senate priorities were “trade, trade and trade,” while labor and regulatory issues were fourth and fifth most frequently mentioned, respectively.

“The good news is that I’m a grow it and sell it kind of guy,” he added.

Perdue has already developed a great relationship with other key White House trade officials, including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who is expected to be the lead player on new trade agreements.

It was Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who told Perdue last week that Trump was seriously considering a withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“He asked me what the impact on U.S. agriculture would be if we withdrew from NAFTA … and I said it would be very devastating and I’d love the opportunity to communicate that (to Trump),” Perdue said.

It wasn’t much later that Perdue was in the White House, showing Trump on a map all of the states that would suffer if, for example, Mexico reinstated tariffs on U.S. farm goods. Many of those agricultural states helped Trump collect the electoral points needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election.

The U.S. exported about $2.6 billion worth of corn to Mexico in 2016, according to USDA data. In 1993, the year before NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. sent just $35 million worth of corn south of the border.

“I think like any good leader, (Trump) listens to a lot of advice and counsel and he made the decision that the word ‘withdraw’ or ‘terminate’ would be toxic to the markets and determined that he would love to see (NAFTA) work for the betterment of all three nations,” Perdue said.

Other trade-related issues

• Opening Chinese markets. Perdue said progress is being made on re-opening Chinese markets to U.S. beef. During his first week on the job, President Trump asked Perdue to write a letter to President Xi and “tell him of our willingness and desire to get U.S. beef into China.” Then Trump planned to put a personal note along with the letter.

“Those are the kinds of personal relationships that matter,” Perdue explained, while also noting that he planned to be “latched at the hip” with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to China. Perdue expressed optimism that Trump’s team could also address trade disputes on ethanol, distilled-dried grains, and genetically modified organism trait approvals.

• New Undersecretary for Trade. The Agricultural Act of 2014 gave USDA a directive to develop and report on a reorganization plan – leading to the establishment of a trade under secretary position – but previous USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack was reluctant to make the farm bill changes during the waning days of the Obama Administration. Perdue says he plans to create an under secretary for trade position, but did not provide details as to how he would separate the USDA mission areas with trade responsibilities.

“With FSA, we want employees to think about serving our farmers day in and out; at the Foreign Agriculture Service, we want employees to wake up each day thinking about ‘how do I sell more.’”

• Sugar. The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) announced recently that it would end the antidumping and countervailing duty suspension agreements in place with Mexico and impose duties on Mexican sugar beginning June 5, unless the two countries can reach an accord before then to stop Mexico’s unfair trading practices. Perdue said he was hopeful that both sides could still cut a deal.

“I hope everyone will come to the conclusion that it’s in their best interest to meet somewhere in the middle. We aren’t asking sugar beet or cane producers to do things that are not in their best long-term interest. We do want them to think long and hard about the consequences of the U.S. procuring raw sugar at the world market at lower prices than we are paying today.

Infrastructure needs

Perdue also said USDA intends to play a significant role in President Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, starting with making sure that even the remotest rural communities have high-speed access to the Internet.

“Obviously, you know that broadband has become the new roads and sewers … of this century and one of the things in production agriculture that they’re using is connectivity,” Perdue said.

“Frankly, from a more social standpoint, it’s going to be hard to keep good, smart kids on the farm if they can’t access (the Internet) on their smart phones …,” Perdue said. “There’s a great motivation behind (better Internet), not only from a productive capacity, but for the future of sociological assimilation or rural areas.”

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editors Bill Tomson and Philip Brasher contributed to this report.