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The Seeds Could Guide the Sun: Facing Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Ag

April 24, 2017 |

Facing a 21 percent budget cut under the new White House Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking for a strong advocate in the President’s cabinet. Today, former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue (R) faces his full Senate hearing. Perdue’s hearing before the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, better known as the Ag Committee, and the late announcement of this position by the new president, has many in the world of sustainable agriculture concerned for farming’s importance, especially urban farming, in the White House’s agenda.

Perdue was raised on a “dairy and diversified row crop farm” in Bonaire in rural Georgia. His dad was a farmer and his mother a teacher. He has a doctorate in veterinary medicine. Perdue has a successful grain storage business with ties to the international agriculture trade. New federal ethics documents ensure Perdue would step away from his business concerns upon appointment but he would retain his knowledge of agribusiness. Perdue appears educated and competent enough to lead the USDA, yet his past professional experience is firmly planted in traditional agriculture. He holds a position on the Georgia Agribusiness Council and the National Grain and Feed Association.

As governor of Georgia, Perdue was accused of ethics violations on several occasions. For example, upon leaving office, it was discovered that two formerly rejected  projects in Perdue’s home county, at a cost of approximately $4 million, were suddenly back on the books. One of the projects was adjacent to land owned by Perdue. Although not technically illegal the incident, reflective of several other budget issues during his tenure, has had many questioning Perdue’s character.

Rather than help undocumented workers become legal visa holders, as governor, Perdue signed a tough state immigration law that resulted in the deportation of thousands of undocumented workers. The blatancy of Georgia’s reliance on migrant labor was quickly apparent with ghost towns popping up in rural areas. A few years on, Perdue has reportedly softened this stance and even supports expanded trade relations with Cuba.

Yet the questions at Perdue’s Ag Committee hearing did focus on the concerns of many that Perdue will focus his administration on Big Ag, deregulation, cutting vital programming, reducing staff, a reduction in environmental protection laws and the deportation of migrant workers.

The Committee looked to Perdue for assurance that he would work with other federal agencies to maintain or update existing farm programs but also give the programming the tools it needed to be effective for more farmers by working with other agencies, ensuring programs weren’t conflicting with each other. “I think the relationship with the administrator of the EPA [is important] to make sure our producers and farmers don’t get caught in some of the unintended consequences of rules that have gone awry,” said Perdue.  “Trying to be compliant they [farmers] get caught into a web of rules that are very onerous and I will not only try to provide the staff so that they can do good conservation, good soil preservation but work with our administrator at EPA to do that as well. “

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND, D) addressed an inequality between regulations for Canada versus regulations for American grains which unequally favored import of Canadian products over American products. Perdue committed to review this adding that beef and dairy standards for imports of Canadian goods also needed further review to make things fair. Perdue did feel sugar imports from the south were undercutting American farmers and by extension value-added products mentioned by Senator Heitkamp as a vital part of agriculture in her state of North Dakota.

Although urban farming and the ever growing role of urban agriculture in the restructuring American economy is a forefront concern of city planners, aiding in the rehabilitation of former manufacturing giants and increasing America’s food security across the inner city landscape, the bi-partisan committee’s focus was on the role of big agriculture in the new federal budget and the exportation of American goods. Perdue noted that selling goods abroad also fulfilled America’s moral obligation to the feed the world.

Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow was the only one to mention the diversification of agriculture and the many different types of farms in America that need to be considered when drafting the new Farm Bill. When looking for Perdue’s commitment on a number of topics she inquired if he thought organic farming had a place in it. “I think consumers across the country have demonstrated that,” responded Perdue.

And although Perdue agreed with Stabenow’s list of essential needs including rural development capital, rural sewer assistance, organic farming and programs for children and the elderly, when asked directly about their place in the vastly reduced proposed new budget, he admitted that although he had no input in creating the budget, he would try to work within the confines of it. “These are important programs. I recognize that. I will do everything in my power within the confines of the administration working there to match what our desires are. Perdue hopes to “do more with less.”

The Committee and Perdue agreed on the need for an overhaul of the current federal forest system and a need to prevent forest fires rather than fight them. Perdue acknowledged that federal immigration reform could affect a lot of people in the farming industry. “I think if you go into dairy barns around the country you are going to find most of the time those cows are being milked by immigrant labor and I do plan to be a voice in the Administration to persuade policymakers there over this issue,” said Perdue. Distinctions were made between seasonal and full time labor.

At the close of the Senate hearing it was announced over 700 agricultural organizations had written in support of Sonny Perdue’s appointment. This included six former Secretaries of Agriculture representing both sides of the aisle.

The challenge proponents of urban agriculture may face is ensuring Mr. Perdue realizes the true scope and diversity of those trying to take care of the land and the many new guises, formats and environments it comes in. Sustainable agriculture has not grown spontaneously. It has pushed and struggled against a barrage of misunderstanding, a lack of funding and the misgivings of those it serves; to change perceptions of ‘good,’ ‘safe,’ ‘local’ and ‘community’—to grow the people and grow the land. It can push a little more if it wants to—if it has to.

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