Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue outlines priorities for agriculture

WASHINGTON D.C. -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hit the ground running from day one. In his first week on the job, he held a Farmers Roundtable with President Donald Trump and a national cross section of farmers and farm leaders, helpe...

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (Michelle Rook/Special to Agweek)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (Michelle Rook/Special to Agweek)

WASHINGTON D.C. - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hit the ground running from day one. In his first week on the job, he held a Farmers Roundtable with President Donald Trump and a national cross section of farmers and farm leaders, helped head off the withdrawal of the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement, and announced flexibility for the school lunch program.

The former Georgia governor was one of the last cabinet positions to be filled, but he says that gave him the opportunity to find out what senators want him to accomplish as secretary.

"I heard three major things as I visited with over 75 members of the Senate," says Perdue. "No. 1 was trade, No. 2 was trade and No. 3 was trade, but No. 4 and 5 were the labor situation and regulation."

On trade, Perdue wasted no time creating the undersecretary for trade and foreign affairs position as part of the USDA reorganization he announced on May 11, and as directed in the 2014 farm bill.

"I think it needs to be done and our plans are to have a deputy or an undersecretary for trade for USDA," he says.


He wants this position to focus solely on opening export markets for U.S. products.

"The Foreign Ag Service ought to get up every day: How can I sell more? Where can I sell more? Where can I go to trade these products?" says Perdue.

Perdue additionally announced that an undersecretary would also be selected for a newly-named Farm Production and Conservation mission area. That department will focus on domestic issues and oversee the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Finally, the secretary announced the department's Rural Development agencies would be elevated to report directly to him in recognition of the need to help promote rural prosperity.
During the Farmers Roundtable, Trump also signed an executive order charging Perdue to chair an Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.

Chuck Conner, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives CEO and former USDA deputy secretary, says it will look at all aspects of rural economy and the issues facing rural America. "How do we generate jobs, job creation, economic activity in rural America? That's going to be a top to bottom review, whether its regulations or any other kind of government policy," he says. Perdue is scheduled to provide a report in 180 days.

Perdue says on the regulatory front, the task force will focus on common sense and science-based regulations. He says they will build on the regulatory rollback already started by Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

"He's (Pruitt) already demonstrated a real understanding of the barriers that we put out in our farms and fields all across this country, and we're committed to do even more," Perdue says.

This is a change in approach to regulations that farm groups are applauding.


Daren Coppock, Agriculture Retailers Association CEO says the EPA signaled their stance on regulation with their recent decision to overturn the ban on Lorsban.

"The agency said we're going be based on science, based on data and we're going to be transparent. And frankly that's something very welcome news to our members," he says.

Farm groups are already working on their wish list for regulatory reform.

"We already have a list of about 50 or 60 regulations, hardly any of them at USDA, most of them at EPA and places like that we really want them to look at and see if we can make some progress," says Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federations.

Perdue also is focused on labor and says Trump wants immigration reform that benefits agriculture.

"What he's after is the criminal element of illegal immigration," he says. "He understands there are dedicated farm workers out here who are immigrants who are sometimes milking cows 365 days a year, not just seasonal workers. And he wants to find a way we can use the productive capacity of those people who are here to serve agriculture."

Immigration reform can't come soon enough for sectors like dairy.

"Let's fix this longer term," says Chris Galen, with the National Milk Producers Federation. "Let's create a workable guest worker visa-type program. That works specifically for dairy and other types of employers that don't just need seasonal help, they need year-round help."


While these priorities are commendable, it's a tall task considering Perdue must also build his team at USDA.

"I think he's used his time well during this delay in confirmation though to be ready to roll that team out in fairly short order," says Conner. "And I think you're going to see him catch up with the delay fairly quickly."

United States Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. (Michelle Rook/Special to Agweek)

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