Winds Of Change Could Come Slowly For Agriculture Nominee Perdue

Apr 24, 2017
Originally published on April 24, 2017 9:40 am

If confirmed Monday agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue confronts an industry in search of stability.

The farm economy is declining, trade with vital global markets is in disarray and immigration policy is in flux. In his initial budget, Trump suggested a 21 percent cut to USDA's discretionary spending, so Perdue would want to jump into Washington policy discussions quickly.

Perdue would find a desk at USDA piled high with priorities and will be one of the last members of President Donald Trump's cabinet to be seated.

In the Corn Belt, however, it is planting season. That means that most farmers are less worried about Washington and more focused on the weather.

As 35-year-old Robbie Maass and his parents Leah and Bob open the sliding doors on their machine shed near Ellsworth, Iowa, light from a heavy, grey day streams in to show off their giant, blue 16-row planter. Bob Maass kicks the tires and taps at the wheels to knock off mud from last year. The Maass family is ready and waiting, Robbie says, for drier weather.

Leah Maass says they have also been waiting on Sonny Perdue's confirmation. But the slow process has not bothered her. She is confident he's a good man for the job.

"He can envision what's happening and process it and know solutions," Leah Maass said, "unlike some of us who are so easily confused."

Perdue grew up on a farm, trained as a veterinarian, worked for decades in family agribusinesses and served two terms as governor of Georgia. While in office, Perdue was dogged by complaints that he was still involved in the family businesses. Some environmental and consumer groups say he is too cozy with industry. But Maass says Perdue's farm background and experience as an executive will be good for agriculture.

"I think he would be a tremendous asset and get things moving," Leah Maass said. "No theories, actual actions."

Many of the nation's large and influential agriculture and commodity groups support Perdue's selection. Questions remain, however, over the ag policies Trump will ask him to pursue.

"He's not going to be able to start from a running start," said Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley. "It's sort of a stand-still right now."

Take the budget, Shelley says. Rural groups, agriculture industry groups and food stamp advocates worry about the president's proposed cuts to the Agriculture Department's discretionary spending. By the time the agriculture secretary starts work, budget discussions will be well underway. Does Perdue have any shot at contributing to those conversations?

"Oh, I'd say the hope is about zilch," Shelley said.

The slow action on an agriculture secretary speaks to how farm and rural issues rank in Washington right now, Shelley says, echoing a common refrain.

"I think it is crystal-clear that this is not the No. 1 objective of the current Republican leadership at either end of Pennsylvania Ave.," Shelley said.

That, he adds, may not sit well with farm country voters who turned out in large numbers for Republicans last fall.

"That's basically running the risk of poking your fingers in the eyes of your supporters," Shelley said.

While the Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary, producers have also grown nervous as farm economics was swept up in tough talk over trade. Mexico, for example, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. corn, is threatening to get its grain instead from South America.

Farmer Kurt Hora, who heads the Iowa Corn Growers Association, says that would be a serious blow to U.S. farmers. Hora worries that among the president's proposed cuts to agriculture is money spent on promoting U.S. products abroad.

"We want to make sure that we don't lose those markets because it takes a lot more to get a market back than it does to maintain and build one," Hora said.

Leah Maass, for one, is willing to be patient with the Trump administration.

"That's the great thing about this country: things do take time," she said. "If we rushed into them, you know like a dictatorship takes over and this is how it's going to be, then I would be concerned."

Copyright 2017 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate is scheduled to vote today on the nation's next agriculture secretary, a full three months after President Trump announced his choice for that job. If confirmed, Sonny Perdue will run a department slated for major cuts in the administration's proposed budget. Those cuts could end up affecting the lives of farmers, many of whom are seeing their incomes fall for the fourth year in a row. Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer has more.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue sailed through his Senate committee hearing and his confirmation is expected. But that may be the easiest thing he'll do. The Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary for three months. And Perdue faces a long to-do list. Iowa State University political scientist Max Shelley is concerned that the delay in his confirmation sends a message.

MACK SHELLEY: I think it is crystal clear that this is not the number one objective of the current Republican leadership at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

MAYER: Shelley thinks that's odd because it was farmers and other rural voters who played key roles in Trump's victory.

SHELLEY: That's basically running the risk of poking your fingers in the eyes of your supporters. You've had very little payback - positive payback - at this point for the rural sector of the economy and the electorate.

MAYER: The focus for many right now in farm country is getting seeds in the ground. Robbie Maass and his parents, Leah and Bob, open the sliding doors on their machine shed near Ellsworth, Iowa. It's another in a string of gray rainy days preventing them from planting. Bob Maass kicks the tires of a giant blue planter and taps at the wheels to knock off last year's mud. Robbie Maass joined this farm operation just a few years ago.

With sustained low prices for corn and soybeans, it's been tough but he's lucky his parents have made the major investments, like this high-tech equipment. But they can't get into the fields until the weather dries out. It's frustrating for farmers to sit and wait. Leah Maass says that extends to waiting so long for the top ag post to be filled. Still, she's confident Sonny Perdue is a good choice.

LEAH MAASS: He was a producer and yet he's had experience with trucking, the transportation industry and so many other aspects. And then he's already served public office, so he knows - he understands the rule making and the regulation side of it.

MAYER: Perdue grew up on a dairy farm, trained as a veterinarian, worked for decades in family agribusinesses and served two terms as governor of Georgia. While in office, he faced ethics complaints about his ongoing involvement in the family businesses. Part of the reason his confirmation is taking so long is that Perdue had to untangle himself from those interests. While the Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary, farmers have grown nervous as farm economics got swept up in tough talk over trade.

Mexico, for example, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. corn, is threatening to get its grain instead from South America. Farmer Kurt Hora, who heads the Iowa Corn Growers Association, says that would be a serious blow to U.S. farmers. Hora worries that among the president's proposed cuts to agriculture is money spent on promoting U.S. products abroad.

KURT HORA: We want to make sure that we don't lose those markets because it takes a lot more to get a market back than it does to maintain and to build one.

MAYER: Like the Maass family, Hora's trying to get his crops in the ground. And like many other farmers, he's looking forward to having an agriculture secretary who can advocate for farmers in this new administration. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer near Ellsworth, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "AND ALL THROUGH THE WINTER HE HID HIMSELF AWAY")

MARTIN: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.