- DTN Headline News
Perdue Pegged as USDA Chief
Thursday, January 19, 2017 2:42PM CST

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- After extensive deliberation, President-elect Donald Trump named former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as his nominee for Agriculture secretary early Thursday.

In a statement, Trump noted Perdue "embraced polices under which Georgia farmers have thrived," and Perdue would bring that same level of success to USDA. "Perdue is deeply in touch with the concerns of American farmers and will fight for their prosperity," the transition team stated.

"Sonny Perdue is going to accomplish great things as Secretary of Agriculture," Trump said. "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 he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land."

Perdue, 70, fills out the final cabinet position just one day before Trump's inauguration. Perdue was governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011, but he also has a long history in the grain and feed industry as a founding partner for AGrow Star, a grain business with 11 elevator locations across Georgia and South Carolina. AGrow Star grew out a grain and fertilizer business Perdue's family built that later bought and merged with a group of grain elevators in 2000 that had been called Milner Grain.

"I am proud and honored to be joining President-elect Trump's administration as his Secretary of Agriculture," Perdue said. "Beginning as a simple Georgia farm boy, making sure Americans who make their livelihood in the agriculture industry are thriving is near and dear to my heart, and I'm going to champion the concerns of American agriculture and work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families in this new role."

Even before the official announcement, several major agricultural groups praised the announcement. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a Georgia farmer, stated that Perdue's nomination "is welcome news to the nation's farmers and ranchers" and would provide a strong voice for agriculture.

"I have known Gov. Perdue for years. 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," Duvall said. "He understands the challenges facing rural America because that's where he was born and raised. He is a businessman who recognizes the impact immigration reform, trade agreements and regulation have on a farmer's bottom line and ability to stay in business from one season to the next."

Danny Brown, president of AGrow Star, told DTN in an interview earlier this month that Perdue is the managing member of the company. He also has worked with Perdue for 40 years in the grain business.

"We are mainly a corn, wheat and soybean operation," Brown said. "We'll certainly handle any type of grain. We'll handle oats, we'll handle soybean meal or grain sorghum, but that that takes care of 95% of our business."

The company has sold the fertilizer part of the business, but AGrow Star has just over 3 million bushels of storage capacity at its 11 locations and also has a trucking business. As Brown described it, AGrow Star has several marketing services for grain producers in the region.

In his capacity, Perdue serves on several boards in agriculture, including as a board member for the National Grain and Feed Association and as the secretary for the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

"He's the big dog in charge," Brown described Perdue. "Sonny's job is to take care of the entity and oversee it and make sure that we do our job."

Perdue had gone to veterinary school and went back home to be a veterinarian. His father and brother-in-law had started the grain and fertilizer business, but over time Perdue personally got more involved in that side of agriculture as well.

"The grain business changed in the late '70s from buying and selling to marketing and we were all part of a marketing group called White Commercial and we learned to market grain rather than just buying and selling," Brown said.

"He knows a lot about the grain business and he knows a lot of people in the industry," Brown said. "He is well versed in fertilizer, chemicals, grain business and marketing."

In 1988-89, Perdue was president of the Southeastern Grain and Feed Association. Bonnie Holloman, who has been executive director of the association for 37 years, has known Perdue since the 1980s and praised his selection.

"He is going to bring so much to that position," Holloman said. "I was just so elated when I heard President-elect Trump was considering him ... He is a man of integrity and a family man who just really cares. Agriculture is going to be better off having him in there."

The selection process for Agriculture secretary was the longest for an incoming president since Franklin Roosevelt chose Henry Wallace for the job in 1933. It's unclear what delayed the process as Trump focused on Texans, women and a pair of Hispanic candidates for the job before offering it to Perdue. Members of Trump's agricultural advisory team also became upset when it appeared Trump might offer the job to a Democratic senator.

Perdue met with Trump about the Agriculture secretary job on Nov. 30. Afterward, a parade of candidates met with Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others on the transition team. Yet, Trump eventually came back around to Perdue.

If confirmed, Perdue will replace outgoing Secretary Tom Vilsack who is President Barack Obama's longest-serving cabinet member, having served the full tenure of Obama's presidency. USDA is one of the largest departments in the federal government with a budget of $148 billion for fiscal-year 2016, broken down with 73% focuses on nutrition programs; 13% in commodity programs; 8% in conservation and forestry; and all other functions such as rural development and food safety accounting for 6% of the budget.

Perdue grew up the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher in central Georgia and has a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia. He also served in the Air Force as a captain before returning back to Georgia in the mid-1970s to start his career. He was a county zoning commissioner and then became a state representative and later a state senator, serving as a Democrat. Perdue was the top Democrat in the Georgia Senate from 1994-97. He then switched parties in 1998 and continued to win state Senate races as a Republican. Perdue then won the governorship in 2002, becoming the first Republican governor of Georgia since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Perdue left office in 2011 because Georgia has term limits on its governorship.

Perdue's time as a Democrat led to questions by some whether he would be accepted in the hyper-partisan environment of Washington, D.C., but Trump likely focused on Perdue's deep business ties in the grain industry rather than Perdue's political switch.

Known for its peaches and Vidalia onions, Georgia has a diverse agricultural industry. The state ranks as the country's largest state for chicken broiler production, as well as peanuts and second in the country in cotton production, according to the 2012 USDA Ag Census. The state also ranks among the top five states for fruits, tree nuts and berries.

As governor, Perdue worked to promote agriculture in Georgia and industry expansion. The poultry industry, for instance, continued to grow in the state. Georgia, though, also was hit by drought during his tenure. He pushed water conservation during the drought and also sued the Army Corps of Engineers over battles regarding water flows between neighboring states. Perdue also drew both criticism and praise when he held a prayer vigil at the state capitol to pray for rain. The event in November 2007 drew hundreds of people.

"I'm here today to appeal to you and to all Georgians and all people who believe in the power of prayer to ask God to shower our state, our region, our nation with the blessings of water," Perdue said at the time.

Perdue also has gotten some face time as an actor. He had a cameo in the movie "We Are Marshall" as the football coach for East Carolina University. The movie about the Marshall University football team was filmed in Georgia. Perdue said at the time, "I fit the role perfectly as an old jock," according to the Associate Press article on his cameo. In college, Perdue was a walk-on to the University of Georgia football program.

After leaving office, Perdue announced he and others started Perdue Partners in 2011, which was reportedly a trading company in Atlanta focusing on exports. Perdue Partners included cousin David Perdue, who is now a U.S. senator from Georgia and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Perdue Partners has a LinkedIn page, but its website doesn't open to offer any further details about the company.

While sharing the same last name as Perdue Farms, Sonny Perdue stated in a news release as governor that he is not related to the Maryland family that owns the poultry company, which does have operations in Georgia.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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