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What Can We Expect From Donald Trump's Secretary of Agriculture Pick?

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Today, President-elect Donald Trump nominated former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to take the helm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as Secretary of Agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture was Trump's final cabinet position to be filled, coming in just one day before he is sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States. If accepted, he will succeed Tom Vilsack who was appointed by the Obama Administration in 2009.

Here's a quick backgrounder on Perdue:

Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (right) and former US Representative Jack Kingston (left).
Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (right) and former US Representative Jack Kingston (left). Photo by Bruce Tuten

As The Washington Post notes, Perdue, now 70, is a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party before he became governor of Georgia in 2003. He was the first Republican to take that office since the Reconstruction era in 1868. Perdue was born into a farming family, and as the New Georgia Encyclopedia states, he attended the University of Georgia and went on to earn a doctorate from the UGA College of Veterinary Science, eventually becoming a small-business owner in Bonaire.

He rose through the ranks of Georgia politics in the 80s and 90s. After assuming the the top-ranking office of the state, he governed primarily conservatively with an eye on the international stage (for example, he brought the first Kia factory to the United States in Georgia). After he left office, he founded Perdue Partners, which Bloomberg describes as "a global trading company that facilitates U.S. commerce focusing on the export of U.S. goods and services through trading, partnerships, consulting services, and strategic acquisitions."

But what does the USDA even do? I needed a refresher myself, so here's how they describe themselves on their website:

We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management. We have a vision to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation's natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.

To get a better idea of what we can expect from Secretary Perdue, I spoke to Sam Fromartz, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). "Perdue is expected to keep the status quo. The question, of course, is whether he will favor the conservation measures that Vilsack pursued to reduce environmental problems," he explained.

Photo by cjuneau | Flickr

Fromartz went on to add that Perdue will most likely not play a pivotal role in keeping things neutral between hunger advocates and farm states on the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that supports farms and farming —as well as SNAP, or the food stamp program—that expires and is updated every five years (the last bill was signed in 2014, so it won't be up for changes until 2019). "Much of the direction will come from Congress, where the battle over severing food stamps from farm support programs comes up repeatedly but has never gained traction beyond zealots," Fromartz said. "But this is also a time when the most unexpected and unimaginable has become the new normal."

What this means in layman's terms is that there is, in Fromartz's words, a "historic compromise" that's long been followed to balance the needs of rural farming communities and SNAP recipients. He says that urban lawmakers will generally vote for the Farm Bill if that nutrition assistance is kept up. "What rural lawmakers get in return are farm supports for farmers, things like what crop insurance is today," Fromartz added. (Crop insurance is pretty self-explanatory: It helps protect farmers against loss of crops due to natural disasters, like hail or drought.) This historic compromise, as well as the renewable fuel program, are where the big policy changes may occur with a new administration keen to cut spending. Additionally, while not the focus of the position, Fromartz mentioned that trade often comes in to play for the Secretary of Agriculture because of their involvement with exports. He explained that some of our main trading partners, like Mexico and Canada (both a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA) as well as China, have been targeted under complaints by Trump, leaving an uncertainty unlike what's been seen in many years of what is to come in that arena.

So, what does Fromartz think will happen? To him, based on everything Trump has said, he predicts there will be spending at the same time as cutting taxes, especially for things like farm supports, which are big programs. "I think it’s politically impossible because Congress would never cut it," he explained. "If you are cutting back on those specific supports it's going to have direct impact on people who voted for [Trump]."

Correction: A previous version of this article included China as a part of NAFTA—China is not a part of NAFTA.

Tags: Food Biz, Farms, Food History