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Washington. — Just one day before his inauguration, Donald Trump completed his cabinet by nominating former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue for the post of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Insiders said the final post to be filled was held up for weeks as some Republicans felt Trump needed to put at least one person of Hispanic descent in his cabinet – and perhaps more women. Perdue was mentioned early and often as the frontrunner for the post at USDA but some were pushing for former Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano and former California Lt. Gov. Abel Moldonado. Both would have brought Hispanic diversity to the cabinet and both had met with Trump at his Mar-A-Lago home in Florida just before New Year’s Day.

Murano is a Cuban immigrant who served in the USDA for food safety under George W. Bush. Maldonado is a California vineyard owner who served in Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger’s administration. Since neither made the cut, this is the first Cabinet in 28 years to not have a Hispanic person on it

Perdue, who is 70, is described as a Georgia farm boy who became a veterinarian, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and a successful small business owner, concentrating in agribusiness and transportation, and then a two-term Georgia Governor. He has a record of promoting the export of U.S.-produced grain, meat and farm products. He was interviewed early in the process by the Trump transition team but wasn’t named to the post until Senate confirmation hearings were already underway for other nominees.

Traditionally presidents name their pick for Agriculture Secretary soon after Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense since the agency has such a wide-ranging set of responsibilities – from food and nutrition programs to farming issues to rural development programs and natural resources.

Perdue will also have to hit the ground running on ideas for the next farm bill which is always a challenge but may be especially so this time around following several years when net farm income has dropped dramatically.

America's agency

Reacting to the choice of Perdue to head the USDA, National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson commented that given the “challenging state of the farm economy, more than ever, family farmers and ranchers need a champion in Washington. I am hopeful we will find that champion in Sonny Perdue.

“The USDA is more than agriculture’s agency; it is America’s agency. We look forward to working with Mr. Perdue and the new administration to create and defend a strong farm safety net and provide meaningful farm policy solutions for producers, particularly dairy farmers and cotton growers, in the next Farm Bill,” Johnson added.

The American Farm Bureau Federation strongly endorsed Perdue for the USDA post. Zippy Duvall, President of AFBF said he believes Perdue will provide the “strong voice that agriculture needs in the new administration. He is an outstanding nominee.

“I have known Gov. Perdue for years. I’ve seen firsthand his commitment to the business of agriculture as we worked together on issues facing farmers and ranchers in our home state of Georgia,” Duvall said. “He understands the challenges facing rural America because that’s where he was born and raised. He is a businessman who recognizes the impact immigration reform, trade agreements and regulation have on a farmer’s bottom line and ability to stay in business from one season to the next.”

Advocate for farmers

National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) President and CEO Jim Mulhern said that Perdue’s role as chief advocate for farmers and rural America is absolutely crucial in the new Trump Administration, “especially when milk prices have been in a prolonged slump.”

Mulhern said that former Gov. Perdue is well-qualified to run the USDA as a result of his eight years of executive experience as Georgia’s governor, and his career as a state legislator and small businessman.  His educational training as a veterinarian also gives him unique insights into the important issues facing America’s livestock producers in the areas of animal health, food safety and the environment.

“Dairy producers, like most other farmers and ranchers across America, have experienced significant economic challenges for more than a year,” said Mulhern. “Starting right away in 2017, NMPF will seek to collaborate with Secretary Perdue on ways to strengthen the safety net for dairy farmers, relieve regulatory burdens and enhance opportunities to keep and grow markets abroad for our dairy exports.”

In particular, the dairy cooperative lobbying group will continue to advise the USDA on efforts to improve the dairy Margin Protection Program, which enacted in the last farm bill, to best benefit America’s dairy producers and emphasize the importance of trade to the dairy industry.

Tracy Brunner, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, called Perdue an “excellent” pick to head the Agriculture Department. “As a lifelong agri-businessman and veterinarian, as well as the two-term governor of a state where agriculture is the largest industry, Gov. Perdue has a unique and expert understanding of both the business and scientific sides of agriculture,” Brunner said.

“In a time of increasing regulations and a growing governmental footprint, we have no doubt that Gov. Perdue will step in and stand up for rural America so that we can continue to do what we do best – provide the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.”

Keep moving forward

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) said its members looked forward to hearing more about Perdue’s positions on issues important to corn growers. Texas farmer Wesley Spurlock, who heads the organization, said agriculture needs strong leadership at the agency to “keep the industry moving forward through difficult economic times. That means protecting risk management programs, continuing to grow the renewable fuels industry, expanding foreign markets and increasing demand for U.S. agricultural products throughout the world.”

American Soybean Association President and Illinois soybean farmer Ron Moore noted that the USDA “touches the lives of every American, and it is among the most crucial government functions for farmers across the United States.

“For soybean farmers, USDA serves us in so many ways. From working to implement a viable risk management framework to helping expand our markets overseas, to investing in agricultural research here at home, these are critical elements of the farm economy, and we look forward to working alongside USDA under Secretary Perdue to ensure that the department continues to serve American soybean farmers in the most effective manner possible.”

The American Feed Industry Association said it was pleased with the choice of Perdue to head the USDA. “The AFIA works with USDA on a broad slate of issues such as trade and implementation of the farm bill. We believe Gov. Perdue's political and agriculture-related background make him a sound fit for the role,” said AFIA’s President and CEO Joel Newman.

Newman said his organization looked forward to working with the USDA on animal food-related topics, and how the industry relates to other agriculture sectors and to consumers. “This will be particularly important as Congress, the administration and industry come together to draft and enact the new farm bill,” he added

Betsy Huber, president of the National Grange, America’s oldest general farm and rural public interest organization, said her organization is largely credited with the successful push to make the highest-ranking U.S. official for Agriculture a cabinet-level position in the late 1800s.

“We are pleased to see the respect the incoming administration and transition team has given the seat, which greatly impacts many aspects of rural life,” she said.

Rural roots

“Mr. Perdue is certainly well qualified to head up the USDA, from his roots growing up on a rural crop and dairy farm to his education as a veterinarian and ownership of small agribusinesses, Purdue has a personal perspective of agriculture and rural matters,” she said.

“The Governor understands the plight of agriculture, the challenges facing rural America, and the business acumen required to oversee our nation’s massive food and agriculture policy system.  We look forward to working with future Secretary Perdue on agriculture, food, land, water, rural healthcare, rural broadband, conservation and other issues affecting rural and small town America,” Huber added.

The nomination drew praise from wildlife groups as well. As a hunter and angler, Perdue understands the importance of wildlife conservation, said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, the nation’s largest conservation organization. “He has a record of working with both Republicans and Democrats to advance innovative land conservation programs, increase water conservation, restore longleaf pine forests, and expand recycling programs.”

Critical issues

O’Mara said he looked forward to working with Perdue on critical issues facing USDA, including reducing wildfires and improving habitat by restoring National Forests, protecting America’s grasslands that are being “lost at an alarming rate”, expanding successful natural resource and farm bill conservation programs, addressing chronic wasting disease plaguing deer populations, leading the council responsible for administering more than $3 billion of the Deepwater Horizon fines for Gulf restoration, and integrating climate science into all the department’s activities.

“We expect Governor Perdue to oppose any efforts to transfer ownership or management of the nearly 200 million acres of national forests and grasslands,” O’Mara added.

Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation called Perdue a “true sportsman and committed conservationist, who prioritized improving the natural resources of Georgia throughout his tenure.

“A key part of Gov. Perdue’s legacy was improving conservation on private working lands and engaging sportsmen to improve outdoor opportunities and expand important conservation programs.” Worley, who has hunted quail with Perdue, said the former governor is “an outstanding wing shot” and has always been a friend to hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Gov. of Iowa, is the only Cabinet Secretary to serve for the entire tenure of President Obama.

A challenge for Perdue will be to keep agricultural products like grain, beef, pork and cotton moving out of the United States if trade deals are changed or scuttled. (See related TPP article.)

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