Perdue is one step away from becoming the next head of USDA, but it could be a long one

Perdue is one step away from becoming the next head of USDA

While President Trump’s nominee for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue breezed through his Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing late last month, he could face a long delay before the full Senate can consider his nomination. But that isn’t stopping industry stakeholders from appealing to him as if he is already confirmed. 

Perdue won a near unanimous nomination by the Senate Agriculture Committee, with only Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, dissenting in part on her belief that he mismanaged the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with governing Georgia.

Beyond this opposition, which some critics argue was not probed deeply, Perdue faced little in the way of tough questions, although Debbie Stebenow, D-Mich., did press him on his reaction to Trump’s proposal to “gut USDA funding by 21 percent.”

Through a series of yes or no questions, Stabenow pushed Perdue to acknowledge support for several programs that under Trump’s budget proposal would be zeroed out or considerably cut, including small town access to clean water, modern farm tools, capital for rural businesses to remain competitive and grow, a place for organic farming and access for children and seniors to sufficient food.

When asked how, if confirmed, he would address these cuts, Perdue said he would “get under the boards and get some room and work for agriculture producers and consumers to let this administration and any of the people who are making those decisions in that budget area know what is important to Americans.”

He also said he would do “everything within my power within the confines of the administration working there to match what our desires are,” even if that means doing more with less – which he says he did as governor of Georgia when the state’s budget was cut from $20 billion in 2003 to $16 billion in 2011.

Promising to be a “strong and tenacious advocate” for agriculture, he added that he looks forward to engaging and inspiring USDA federal workers if confirmed.

Perdue’s four goals

During his opening comments, he also promised that if confirmed, he would prioritize creating jobs in the agriculture sector, providing “customer service every day” by conducting the “people’s business efficiently, effectively and with the utmost integrity,” ensure a high level of food safety and “take care of the land” by supporting private landowners’ conservation efforts and managing natural resources entrusted to the department.

With the committee’s blessing, Perdue’s only remaining hurdle is clearing the full Senate nomination, but to do that a hearing needs to be scheduled first – a feat that might be more challenging than expected given the Senate’s full plate and the upcoming two-week recess later this month. With this in mind, if the Senate is unable to review the nomination this week, it likely would be pushed to late April or even early May.

OTA advocates for USDA support of organic

But even with this threat of delay, some industry stakeholders are already making their case to Perdue for funding.

For example, the Organic Trade Association recently revealed data demonstrating the significant value that Americans place on organic food, noting in a press release that it is “eager to show how important adequate funding is to support a strong organic program and to help organic to continue to become a part of healthy diets of households throughout the nation – including Mr. Perdue’s home state and rural states from coast to coast.”

The trade group noted that a new Nielsen study of 100,000 households conducted in 2015 and 2016 found about 83% of households across the nation bought organic food on a regular basis in 2016, which is up 3.4% from 2015.

In Perdue’s home state of Georgia, organic consumption rose 4% to 81.5%, while the biggest jump in household purchasing of organic was in North Dakota, where 85.6% of households now report buying organic, up 14.2% from 2015.

The trade group suggests that USDA can help farmers meet the growing demand for organic by helping them transition to organic, a three-year process that can be financially risky for some farmers.

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