Sonny Perdue Drew Angerer / GettyImages
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30: Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, November 30, 2016 in New York City.

We have an ag secretary at last

The day before he’s sworn in as president of the United States, Trump nominates an ag secretary, the last cabinet position to be filled.

The majority of farmers and ranchers finally got most of what they want in an ag secretary: real world agriculture experience, agribusiness experience and someone to take up the cause of free trade with President-elect Trump’s somewhat bipolar approach to trade.

Former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue, 70, was announced as Trump’s nominee, some weeks after being the front runner and then fading from mention.

Perdue grew up on a row crop farm, has been involved in grain and feed processing, ag transportation and crop export companies, got his veterinary degree at the University of Georgia, attained the rank of captain in the Air Force and later practiced as a veterinarian, according to Politico. Perdue’s most recent venture, Perdue Partners, specializes in exports of both good and services.

As a Republican, Perdue won two terms as governor, from 2003-2011, the first Republican governor of Georgia in 130 years. He was a Democrat earlier in his political career as state senator. As governor, pushing for economic growth and trade, he boosted the Port of Savannah. His cousin, Sen. David Perdue, has served on the board of the Georgia Ports Authority. David has been a vocal Trump supporter.

With years of both business and government experience, Perdue may be less susceptible to fringe groups trying to manipulate the department or angle for getting pet theories turned into regulations.

Will Bentley, executive vice president for the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association and cattleman himself, says past experience with Perdue would suggest he would be open to rolling back overregulation from the department, including the new GIPSA rules.

“Perdue understands the value of premiums and is not likely to favor going back to seeing all cattlemen getting paid the same, regardless of quality,” Bentley says. “Farmers and ranchers should get paid for their effort in genetics, management and carcass quality.”

We asked Bentley about USDA’s difficult stands on nutrition and health. He said he had not had the opportunity to observe Perdue in those areas.

“But Perdue is a great administrator, a professional with a very professional staff,” Bentley says. “He is good for getting the right people in place for every department. You also won’t see the gross overreach of departments. He is big on staying within statutory authority.”

Given the penchant that federal agencies have shown in recent years for leaving statutory authority trampled in the dust behind them, such an attitude would be welcome by many citizens.

That also goes for private property rights, Bentley adds. “Private land rights are a big thing here in Georgia and we don’t have much federal land,” he says. “The tradition here is to keep private land private, in production and on the tax rolls. Letting the federal government take private land not only takes it out of private hands and out of production, it also takes it off the tax rolls and keeps it from contributing to the county’s schools, transportation, child care, etc.”

Being a governor from a southern state, Perdue’s tenure might not be the time for reforming the few ag subsidy programs that are left, like rice, cotton or sugar. But he does see the value of trade, and not just for agriculture, but for many parts of the economy.

Perdue may also be a tempering voice regarding immigration. He did sign a bill cracking down on illegal immigration in Georgia, but the law-abiding principles Bentley mentions came through.

“We can love all people while loving the law and expecting the law to be fulfilled, and that’s a tricky balance,” he told the Associated Press.

It is still not well understood by many Americans that over 70% of the USDA budget has nothing to do with agriculture. They look at the roughly $150 billion budget and marvel at the “subsidies” for farmers.

But most of the budget is for nutrition and feeding programs. Livestock have never really had any subsidies, and most of the programs for the major row crops like corn or wheat are gone. Agriculture tries to hold on to conservation and crop protection programs, some research and development and market information programs.

Meanwhile, agriculture has been severely kicked around by the EPA and Interior departments, the use and management of both public and private land preempted and curtailed by government bureaucrats wielding new regulations and presidents like Obama siphoning off public land, often for no use other than viewing from great distances.

Gary Baise is an attorney with Washington-based firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda, a firm intimately familiar with fighting federal agencies on behalf of ranchers. We’re guessing those kicks are what he meant when he told Politico that Trump’s agriculture advisory committee wanted “someone who will go in there and kick some ass. And Sonny is that guy.”

Steve Dittmer is a longtime beef industry commentator and executive vice president of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation.

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