Ag Secretary Wait Continues

Just a Week Ago, Former Georgia Governor Looked Like a Lock

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Just over a week ago, it looked like President-elect Donald Trump was going to tap former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to run USDA. Yet the wait for Trump to pick an Agriculture Secretary continues. (DTN file photo by Nick Scalise)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The revolving front door at Trump Tower in New York continues to spin as prospects for Agriculture secretary move in and out.

The latest prospect is Ted McKinney, director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture, as Hoosier Ag Today reported McKinney had visited Trump Tower. That comes after Indiana farmer and agribusinessman Kip Tom also visited Trump Tower late last week. Trump transition team officials have declined to comment on whether either man was interviewing for the top job at USDA. Picking a Hoosier would be a nod to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the former governor of Indiana.

Just before Tom's visit to Trump Tower, the Capitol Hill publication Politico had reported that former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was the favorite to get the post.

One week before President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated, USDA remains the lone cabinet spot without a nominee. Trump and his team have interviewed multiple Texans, multiple Latinos and multiple members of the agricultural advisory team Trump put together over last summer.

After Trump met earlier this week with the CEOs and other executives from Bayer AG and Monsanto about their $66 billion merger, Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, told reporters regarding Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant and Chief Technology Offer Robb Fraley, "Mr. Grant and Mr. Fraley shared their views on the future of the agriculture industry, information the President-elect may have requested in order to appoint the final cabinet position of Secretary of Agriculture."

This is the longest it has taken an incoming president to pick an Agriculture secretary since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Roosevelt picked Henry Wallace in mid-February that year, but Roosevelt also wasn't sworn in until March.

The delay has created some unease in agricultural policy circles. Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose last day on the job is today, told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that the lack of a decision on his replacement reflects a "lack of appreciation" for what the department does.

"Why is that the last one?" Vilsack asked. (http://dld.bz/…)

Vilsack had told DTN on Wednesday that Trump was "moving way too slow," adding there are over 200 political positions in the department that eventually need to be filled. Vilsack noted he was confirmed on inauguration day in 2009 and working in the office the next day.

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% focused 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. More than 100,000 people work at USDA. The Farm Service Agency alone has staff in more than 2,100 counties nationally.

Earlier this week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican stalwart on the Senate Ag Committee, seemed to take a shot at Perdue when he tweeted that he didn't want a Southerner running USDA. Grassley has battled with Southerners about payment limits most of his career, and perhaps that was the reason for the tweet: "Hope pres-Elect Trump chooses next Ag sect from above the Mason-Dixon Line where the states of IA, Mich, Wisc, Ohio, Penn lie."

Despite the Iowa senator's misgivings, Midwest farmers likely would feel at ease with Perdue. Though largely known for his political background, Perdue has a long history in the grain and feed industry as a founding partner of a grain marketing company and elevator business across Georgia and South Carolina.

Perdue, 70, was governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011. He also was a Democrat until 1998, and that time as a Democrat has led to questions by some whether he would be accepted in the hyper-partisan environment of Washington, D.C.

But Perdue also is a managing partner for AGrow Star, a grain business, with 11 locations across Georgia and South Carolina. AGrow Star grew out of 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.

Danny Brown, president of AGrow Star, told DTN in an interview last week 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 told DTN last week. "We'll certainly handle any type of grain. We'll handle oats, we'll handle soybean meal or grain sorghum, but 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 current role, Perdue also 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 (Perdue) 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 told DTN she was praying for him to get the position.

"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."

For now, however, everyone in agriculture continues to wait.

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

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG/BAS)

Chris Clayton