Of all the controversial cabinet nominees, one is the biggest test of Donald Trump’s promises to a crucial group who got him elected. The question is will his pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue — no relation to the chicken family — help small, rural farmers or hurt them?
With Perdue’s approval still pending, the jury is still out on what he will actually do in office. But signs are not encouraging.
“The concern is who likes him and is endorsing him,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group. Perdue has been endorsed by nearly 670 agricultural organizations, including the biggest players in corporate farming like United Egg Producers, The American Farm Bureau Federation, Syngenta and Monsanto
A former Democrat, Perdue shifted to the Republican party shortly before taking the Georgia governor’s office in 2003, becoming the first Republican to helm the state in 130 years. The two term governor grew up on a farm, earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine and owned grain, fertilizer and export businesses.
While governor, Perdue signed a law that blocks local governments from regulating crop production or animal husbandry, a major win for the companies he will police as head of the USDA. There, Perdue would be tasked with managing 100,000 employees and a $140 billion budget that covers programs ranging from farm subsidies to food stamps, as well as environmental and animal welfare measures.
Given his agricultural background, Perdue has won approval from his predecessor under President Obama, former Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack.
But Environmental Working Group, a non-profit advocacy group headquartered in Washington D.C., blasted the nomination. “It’s certainly hard to imagine that a former fertilizer salesman will tackle the unregulated farm pollution that poisons our drinking water, turns Lake Erie green, and fouls the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico,” EWG senior VP for government affairs, Scott Faber said shortly after Perdue’s nomination. The group noted that Perdue received political donations from “Food giants, farm chemical companies and farm lobbyists,” and took more than $278,000 in federal farm subsidies from taxpayers between 1995 and 2004. Like other environmental advocates, EWG fears that Perdue will eagerly jump on the deregulation train being promoted by the Trump administration at the expense of the family farmers and the environment.
And early signs have not been encouraging. Animal welfare advocates have been in an uproar since the administration scrubbed welfare standards from the USDA’s website earlier this month. The Humane Society filed a notice of violation against the department on February 6.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) praised Perdue in a statement after a meeting, because the pair “Discussed opening up more federal lands to timber production in Arkansas and rolling back regulations that have been impeding our poultry industry.”
That’s exactly what worries some.
Perdue’s biggest agricultural feat during his governorship was drastically expanding Perdue Farms’ (reminder: no relation) footprint in Georgia. He helped the company add 500 new chicken houses to the state, framing it as a way to bring jobs and income to family farmers.
The problem is that the contract model used by major producers exploits farmers, pitting them against each other in an unfair tournament system that makes farmers compete for pieces of a never-expanding financial pie. Companies like Perdue, Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride often require major renovations to chicken houses that trap poultry growers in an endless cycle of debt and poverty.
“In our experience, these contracts only work out for corporations and big businesses, not the American farmer,” said Sally Lee, the contract agriculture reform director for Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). Lee recently released a film, Under Contract, about this plight.
After years of working toward new rules that protect farmers under GIPSA, a set of proposals were released at the end of the Obama administration that would give farmers recourse, including making it easier to sue when integrators discriminate against individual farmers.
Now, following through on instituting those rules is going to be up to Perdue.
Some farming advocates who saw hope in the attention Trump seemed to pay to the concerns of rural Americans during the campaign continue to hope for the best.
“If we are indeed going drain the swamp,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Legal Action Fund (R-CALF), a group that represents independent beef producers, “that should mean we’re going to change the national emphasis on highly industrialized agriculture models and return to a highly competitive marketplace that provides genuine economic opportunity for independent farmers and ranchers.” Specifically, Bullard’s group wants Perdue to reinstate rules forcing Country-of-Origin-Labeling showing where cows were raised, not just where they were slaughtered, and rescind cattle imports from countries known to have Foot-and-Mouth disease.
Perdue’s veterinary and legislative background also prompts some hope for animal-welfare advocates. “As governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue signed bills to strengthen the anti-dog-fighting law and ban the use of gas chambers to euthanize shelter pets, and as a veterinarian, he performed spay and neuter surgery to raise awareness of the plight of homeless dogs and cats,” said Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “We hope he makes animal welfare a priority for the USDA.”
Nationally, Perdue is best known for praying for rain as a solution to drought during his governorship. At the same time, he charged liberals with being irrational about climate change science. In 2014 , he wrote in the National Review that, “Liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science” because they claim climate change “Is responsible for heavy rains and drought alike.”
Although Perdue has been widely mocked for his prayer offering, he’s not the only legislator to use the tactic. “Praying for rain was in vogue for some of these governors,” said Lovera. “Mary Fallin in Oklahoma had a day of prayer” for the state’s oil and natural gas industry, which had been linked to an uptick in earthquakes throughout the state.
A month after her prayers, Fallin declared a state of Emergency in the state due to a 5.0 quake that damaged dozens of buildings and forced residents from their homes.
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