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Heitkamp pledges to vote for Perdue for ag secretary

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has pledged to support former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue for U.S. Agriculture Secretary.

Heitkamp on Monday morning spent about 45 minutes talking to Perdue about the U.S. Department of Agriculture, trade, the 2018 Farm Bill and other agriculture topics. She came out of the conversation convinced that Perdue will be a strong voice for agricultural interests in the Trump administration.

“He was one of the most knowledgeable nominees for the position he’s been nominated for” of recent Cabinet nominees, said Heitkamp, who serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee. “With Governor Perdue, the USDA will be in good hands.”

Perdue was President Donald Trump’s final Cabinet pick, selected only two days before the inauguration. Perdue was chosen after a number of names — including Heitkamp’s — were floated for the job.

Perdue’s qualifications to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its $150 billion budget include growing up on a farm, working as a veterinarian, running a grain and fertilizer business and serving two terms as governor of Georgia. Perdue has not yet appeared before the Senate ag committee.

Heitkamp said Perdue is well versed in the challenges and needs of agriculture, including the history and role of the USDA and the role trade plays in the industry. She said her Monday morning meeting with the nominee was more “strategy session about how we are going to move agriculture ahead” than it was an interview with a potential Cabinet member.

Though she said they weren’t able to talk in much detail about anything, they covered a lot of ground in their discussion. High on the list was the upcoming Farm Bill. Heitkamp predicts that legislation will not be a major overhaul of agriculture policy but instead will contain a number of “tweaks” to deal with problems. She said Perdue understands the need to keep nutrition and agriculture programs in the Farm Bill, as well as the necessity of subsidized crop insurance.

The bulk of the conversation dealt with trade, Heitkamp said. Trump already pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement promoted by many sectors in agriculture, and has indicated he would like to renegotiate or leave the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I have concern about the administration’s practices,” Heitkamp said.

While Heitkamp disagrees with the decision to leave the TPP, she said she wasn’t going to try to goad Perdue into saying he disagrees with the administration he aims to join.

“He understands the difficulties of negotiating bilaterally, but he also understands he’s entering an administration where the pledge was to withdraw from TPP,” she said.

She said Perdue understands the trade concerns and knows that agriculture “gets the short end of the stick” in favor of other industries when it comes to trade deals. She said he has guaranteed that he will make trade “an absolute priority” at the USDA.

“He was very well versed on some of the trade problems we’ve had in the past,” Heitkamp said. “He also has a long history with trade promotion with his state.”

Beyond the trade agreements, Heitkamp said they also discussed her Cuba export financing bill, which she reintroduced last week. Because of Georgia’s close proximity to Cuba, Perdue knew about the struggles producers face in trying to sell there, she said.

They talked about the need for an advocate in the Trump administration for the renewable fuel standard, and they discussed issues in label enforcement on imports labeled organic that don’t meet USDA standards for the designation.

Other topics included conservation compliance, sugar beet programs and research funding. Heitkamp also stressed the importance of better explaining modern production agricultural practices, including genetically modified products, to consumers.

“It’s critical to feeding the world,” she said. “If we stop doing what we’re doing, our production levels will decline, and that’s not good.”

Though Perdue comes from south of the Mason-Dixon line, Heitkamp said he told her he knows plenty about issues facing northern farmers.

“He assured me he knew a lot about corn and beans,” she said.