The "Sonny" Side of Agriculture

January 28, 2017 02:33 AM

By Ben Potter and Bridget Beran

Former Georgia governor who grew up on a farm nominated to lead USDA

The agriculture industry was getting antsy about President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture—or the lack thereof. Every other major Cabinet position had been selected as of Jan. 19, when Trump indicated he wants former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to lead USDA.


From humble beginnings as a farmer’s son to working as a veterinarian, Perdue—no relation to Perdue Foods—got a taste for politics in the early 1990s, serving multiple terms as a state senator and twice as governor of Georgia until 2011.

“From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face and is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land,” Trump said in a statement about Perdue.

USDA has a roughly $155 billion budget for 2017 that broadly affects all Americans but has added relevance for rural Americans, with programs that provide assistance for nutrition, conservation, forestry and farms.

Not much was known at press time about Perdue’s stances on several key industry issues, nor how he will help shape the 2018 farm bill. 

Since leaving politics in 2011, he has kept close to his rural roots, managing a trucking and warehouse firm from his hometown of Bonaire, Ga.

Roger Bernard, policy analyst with Informa Economics, is optimistic.

“Perdue knows agriculture—grain and livestock in particular,” he says. “He should be a good spokesperson for ag, and that’s important as we approach our next farm bill.”

Perdue already enjoys the support of many farm industry groups, several of whom issued positive statements following the announcement.

At A Glance
  • 70 years old
  • Married to Marry Ruff
  • Four children, eight foster children and 14 grandchildren
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from University of Georgia
  • Served in the U.S. Air Force
  • Was a Democrat before 1998
  • Georgia Senator: 1991–2001
  • Georgia Governor: 2003–2011 
  • No relation to Perdue Foods

“I have known Gov. Perdue for years,” says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and fellow Georgia native. “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. He understands the challenges facing rural America because that’s where he was born and raised.”

Because Perdue is a businessman, he sees the impact immigration reform, trade agreements and regulations can have on farmer income, Duvall adds.

National Cattleman’s Beef Association president Tracy Brunner, who has a fourth-generation ranch in Kansas, calls Perdue an “excellent pick.”

“Perdue has a unique and expert understanding of both the business and scientific sides of agriculture,” Brunner says. “In a time of increasing regulations and a growing governmental footprint, we have no doubt Perdue will step in and stand up for rural America.”

Perdue doesn’t appear to fit the recent mold. The past three people to serve at this post were from the Midwest. Perdue doesn’t reside in a “top 10” ag state. But Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran brushed criticism aside in a recent interview with “AgriTalk” host Mike Adams.

“There aren’t enough of us who care about farmers and ranchers to have divisions,” he says. “A lot more brings us together than pulls us apart. If you’re a family farmer who raises peaches in Georgia, it’s about the same thing as a wheat farmer in Kansas.”

That “same thing,” according to Moran, is giving farms and ranches enough opportunities to stay vibrant and pass to the next generation.  

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