LIMA, Ohio —It was clear U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was in his element as a brown and tan RV whisked him through this frigid slice of the Great Lakes region on a recent government road trip. The former Georgia governor had spent the morning at a nearby greenhouse, where he jovially asked questions about his host’s operations, snapped pictures with staff and cracked self-effacing jokes.
But even a seasoned retail politician such as Perdue was unable to escape the headlines of the day — the escalating trade fight his boss, President Donald Trump, had stoked with China — and the anxiety it was creating within the agriculture community here.
Beijing had just announced new duties on scores of U.S. agriculture exports, including soybeans, one of this region’s cash crops. And the stakeholders who had come to meet Perdue wanted reassurances that their livelihoods wouldn’t be harmed if the U.S. ended up in a trade war.
Perched in front of a massive U.S. flag onstage in this former oil town’s cavernous convention center, Perdue told the more than 250 people that farmers were “patriots” who could “possibly” experience some pain in the coming months. But Beijing, he said, was “not playing by the rules” on trade and intellectual property and the Trump administration needed time to set things right.
“When it comes to soybeans, pork, fruits, nuts, other things that are on (China’s tariffs) lists, (Trump) wanted me to reassure you all … that he will not allow our great farmers and producers of America to be the casualty in this conflict,” he said.
Everywhere he goes, Perdue praises his boss and tries to put his actions in the best light. And he appears to enjoy a genuinely good relationship with the president, having avoided the drama that engulfed several of his administration colleagues. He’s also been embraced by many in the agriculture world, who see the Bonaire native and former agribusiness owner as one of their own.
As international trade talks intensify, it remains to be seen whether Perdue will be able use his capital with both constituencies to thread the very tricky political needle so he can push other parts of his agenda, including cutting more federal regulations.
It’s been a full year since Perdue was confirmed as the 31st secretary of agriculture. Talk to him about how he approaches his job and he explains it quite simply.
“I’m sort of the bilateral interpreter between the White House and the agricultural community,” said Perdue, himself a former farmer and veterinarian.
That conduit role is precisely why Perdue likes to spend so much time on the road.
The secretary has had one of the heaviest travel schedules of any agriculture secretary in recent memory, visiting 36 states since he was confirmed in April 2017, including three RV tours. His social media accounts are filled with folksy images of him examining crops, praying with farmers and showing off ties with farm animals on them.
Longtime allies such as Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black comment about how they haven’t seen Perdue this happy on the job in years, and even his ideological opposites admit he’s well-suited for the role.
“The most important quality in politics I’ve learned in all my years is likeability and accessibility, and I think he’s handled those two things nicely,” said Democrat Dan Glickman, a former agriculture secretary who worked with Perdue at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In person, Perdue the Cabinet secretary is not unlike Perdue the governor. He can be homespun and charming — he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves during his introductory speech to Agriculture Department employees, telling them, “y’all need to know I was a farmer first” — but on occasion ornery and sharp-elbowed, especially with the press. His team declined to make him available for a sit-down interview for this story.
On the road, Perdue makes a point of asking farmers and other agriculture stakeholders what their biggest issues are with Washington and its bureaucracy. The same three issues pop up over and over: trade, immigration and deregulation.
Perdue has undoubtedly had the most tangible impact on deregulation. He has systematically halted, killed or begun to unwind many of the rulemakings pursued by the Obama administration, moves cheered by many ag interests who saw such directives as unnecessary and overly meddlesome. The actions have also raised the ire of environmental, consumer and some small farmer groups, who say Perdue’s moves are most beneficial to big business.
One of Perdue’s first actions after being confirmed was relaxing one of former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature policies: stricter nutritional standards for school lunches.
He backed the Environmental Protection Agency’s reversal of a clean water regulation deeply unpopular with farmers, withdrew a rulemaking designed to bolster animal welfare on organic farms and moved to quash a set of regulations designed to make it easier for small poultry and livestock farmers to take legal action against the large corporations with which they contract.
“My goal at this point is to make sure the industry — both those in the production side and those in the buying and processing side — that we abide by the USDA motto, which is to do right and feed everyone,” Perdue said after announcing the USDA’s reversal on the contractors’ legal rights.
Many in the agriculture world swooned.
“He knows what it’s like to farm in the face of bad weather, bad markets and bad regulations that make our job even harder,” Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a Georgia native, said during a speech at the group’s annual meeting, where Perdue received a hero’s welcome.
Agriculture officials from Georgia and beyond, including Black and state Farm Bureau President Gerald Long, credit Perdue for helping make USDA officials more responsive to local inquiries for help and information.
“We all have more access that we didn’t even have during (past) administrations,” Long said. “They’ve been much more open, much more willing to meet and talk, and it sort of helps us feel a little more wanted, maybe. It makes us feel like we’re part of finding solutions to issues that we have.”
But Perdue’s aggressive deregulatory clip, one that’s been replicated across the Trump administration, has angered groups such as the Organization for Competitive Markets, which advocates for small farmers. It recently sued the department over its reversal of the regulation related to livestock farmers’ legal rights.
“For almost 100 years, USDA secretaries thought that their job was to protect rural communities, family farmers, ranchers from predatory, retaliatory, discriminatory tactics from global giants,” said Joe Maxwell, the group’s executive director and a fourth-generation hog farmer from Missouri. Under Perdue’s leadership, he said, “USDA today has become nothing but a satellite office to (large multinational food companies such as) Brazil’s JBS Corporation, to Smithfield (Foods).”
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Karen Perry Stillerman offered similar criticism in a 27-page report detailing how Perdue has “betrayed” science and other core missions of the USDA. In addition to regulatory decisions she said favored big business, Stillerman faulted Perdue for endorsing deep budget cuts and structural changes to the food stamp program, as well as at one point backing a former conservative talk radio host to become the USDA’s chief scientist.
“It’s quieter, but (Perdue is) steadily carrying out a deregulatory agenda that sidelines science in favor of ideology and industry,” Stillerman said.
The condemnation from science and environmental groups isn’t exactly a surprise for a GOP administration, nor will it likely cause Perdue to stray from his agenda. Far thornier issues for Perdue politically have been trade and immigration, which have put him between farmers — a group that largely backed Trump in the 2016 elections — and his orthodoxy-bucking boss.
Trump’s campaing fortunes rose in 2016 with a populist platform that emphasized economic protectionism and deporting unauthorized immigrants.
Those positions clash with some of farmers’ core needs: robust, barrier-free trade opportunities and a seasonal yet dependable workforce. Given the long hours and difficult, physical labor needed during harvest time, many agriculture workers are foreigners — and often lack legal status.
Perdue has acknowledged how he’s had a hard time even selling to his administration colleagues on a new class of immigration visa favored by many farmers that isn’t as cumbersome as the current backlogged H-2A system.
“Agriculture is frankly a pretty unique area within the immigration (system). I’ve worked hard at the White House to persuade people who may not understand that,” Perdue said during a February speech. “They still believe that there’s a domestic workforce out there who will farm and gather those crops every year, and I’ve invited those people to go out to the farms and fields with me but I haven’t had any takers yet.”
Farm labor has at best been a back-burner fight in Washington lately. Debates over so-called Dreamers and Trump’s proposed border wall have sucked all the oxygen out of the immigration discussion over the past year. Perdue, so far, has flown under the radar on that issue.
But perhaps the most high-stakes debate for him, the one that could shape how the farm community ultimately views Perdue and the administration as a whole, could be trade.
U.S. agriculture interests are largely supportive of the North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, since it has opened up their crops to new markets. Some in the farm world expressed relief after Perdue was credited for helping persuade Trump to renegotiate the Mexico-Canada free trade deal last year rather than exit it entirely. But there is still uneasiness about what the final product could look like.
The latest trade fight with China, meanwhile, has prompted its own share of heartburn.
Many farmers, particularly in the soybean-heavy Midwest, rely on exporting their crops to Asian markets, especially with commodity prices remaining stubbornly low. The anxiety was clear as Perdue traveled through parts of Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky on his RV tour and was asked about potential tariffs — which Beijing announced in response to Trump’s threats to impose $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods — at nearly every stop.
As Perdue arrived here, the American Soybean Association blasted out a sharply worded statement proclaiming that “it should surprise no one that China immediately retaliated against our most important exports, including soybeans.”
“We have been warning the administration and members of Congress that this would happen since the prospect for tariffs was raised,” the group said.
Cy Prettyman, a soybean, corn and cattle farmer from north-central Ohio, previously met with Perdue through his role as a member of the state’s farm bureau. He said he likes Perdue and feels confident he understands what a trade war could mean for agriculture, but Prettyman said he was deeply concerned about what would happen to his own farm if China goes through with its tariff threat.
“That could mean thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars to my operation,” he said. “It’s lost income for me personally to support my family. Also then I can’t spend money on upgrades on equipment, those type things, so it trickles down and impacts the entire community.”
Publicly, at least, Perdue has stuck with his boss. He assured people during his Midwest tour and in later testimony on Capitol Hill that Trump understands the stakes for farmers and is using his hard-line negotiating tactics to get the Chinese to agree to better trade terms for all U.S. goods.
Perdue, himself, has some unilateral power he could deploy to help farmers ultimately injured by the trade fights. He quietly secured authority from Congress earlier this year that essentially gives him control over $15 billion that could be used to compensate U.S. farmers, according to the trade publication Agri-Pulse. But Perdue has not divulged his specific plans for helping farmers, saying that he wanted to see how negotiations with Beijing turn out first.
“Our goal, frankly, is to get China to the table to discuss some of the unfair trading practices,” Perdue told reporters after his town hall here.
Local farmers are nervously watching from the sidelines.
“I don’t know if we have another option than to trust that we’re going to get this negotiated and done,” Prettyman said. “We want free trade across the country, and we want it to be fair. And if they’re saying it isn’t fair, then we need to address it and we understand that.”