WASHINGTON – As Sonny Perdue moves toward becoming President Donald Trump's secretary of agriculture, Minnesota's congressional delegation and business leaders are hoping the former Georgia governor's advocacy reaches beyond Southern farm interests to more Midwestern concerns like poultry and renewable fuels.
Minnesota's Democratic U.S. senators, who will vote on Perdue's nomination, voiced particular concern with how the Trump administration would address the avian flu threat, as poultry producers nervously eye new outbreaks in Wisconsin and Tennessee. Minnesota lost 9 million turkeys and chickens during a 2015 outbreak, devastating rural economies and costing an estimated $650 million.
"We cannot afford an injury to our poultry industry," Perdue said at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last week, in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The Agriculture Committee voted Thursday to approve Perdue's nomination, with Klobuchar joining Republicans and all but one of the panel's Democrats in backing him. He is expected to easily win confirmation.
Perdue once practiced as a veterinarian, served two terms as governor of Georgia and started a global trading company. He was the last of Trump's Cabinet nominations, and farming constituencies have anxiously awaited his approval. The last three agriculture secretaries were all Midwestern governors — Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Ed Schafer of North Dakota and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — and Midwestern leaders are pushing Perdue to take account of their region.
"I think it's a really big concern to [Sen. Al Franken] to make sure that the Trump administration is putting a big focus on agriculture and a big focus on rural America, and he's going to raise a lot of Minnesota issues with the nominee," said Franken's spokesman. Perdue met with Franken this week, and a spokesman said Franken found it productive.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture committee, said he anticipated different regional interests working together.
"There's not enough of us [in agriculture] to be fighting with each other, the Midwest and the South," Peterson said.
Peterson said he's made an effort to spend a lot of time with agricultural constituencies in the South, visiting cotton, rice and peanut farms and bonding over duck and quail hunting.
Perdue has "very big boots to fill" given Vilsack's strong record on renewable biofuels, said Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association Inc. He praised the previous commissioner's push to give Minnesota access to infrastructure partnership money.
"The big issue is whether or not Perdue will pick up where Secretary Vilsack left off … from my vantage point, it's an open question," Rudnicki said.
Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, led a group of more than two dozen senators this month in urging the Trump administration to reject changes to the renewable fuel standard, warning of harm to small businesses and rural areas.
Perdue promised advocacy for a stronger renewable fuel standard under questioning by Klobuchar at his confirmation hearing.
Perdue's training as a veterinarian is a benefit to Minnesota's livestock producers, said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.
Meat, milk and eggs make up 40 percent of the state's agriculture sales, and the largest market for Minnesota's corn and soybeans is livestock. Perdue's background equips him to address food safety and animal disease concerns, Preisler said, also singling out his work in export markets as good for the pork industry.
At his hearing, Perdue spoke on another matter of interest to rural Minnesotans: extending broadband internet connectivity to more rural areas. He said the White House already is looking to the Department of Agriculture for ideas, as the agency has awarded millions in grants for the cause.
"I'd love to see it get done all across this country," Perdue said.
Looming above Perdue's ascension to the Agriculture Department are questions among agricultural interests around how his leadership will affect negotiations on the federal farm bill, which is due to be renewed next year.
Peterson said he doesn't anticipate big changes, though he wants to get more federal help for dairy farmers and increase the Conservation Resource Program, in which farmers receive a yearly payment for not farming on environmentally sensitive land.
Perdue said he's heard some ideas about how to enhance the margin protection program for dairy farmers. "The volatility of prices we've seen in dairy [is] just unsustainable," he said.
Peterson said he doesn't expect Perdue to focus on climate change — which is OK with him. "I think the previous administration got a little carried away with some of that stuff," Peterson said.
Peterson said he worked well with Vilsack but less so with the Obama White House, which he believes often overruled Vilsack on farm issues.
"I'm not sure that Trump has got much of a background in agriculture, and my guess is he'll leave it to Perdue," Peterson said.
Trump has proposed cutting 21 percent from the Department of Agriculture's budget, but Perdue voiced some optimism he'd be able to work with lawmakers to counteract that.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told Perdue during the hearing she's concerned that "what we're seeing out of the White House and budget doesn't seem to be pro-rural and pro-agriculture, so we need you to be an absolute voracious and active fighter on rural America."
Perdue said he would be.
"Agriculture is in my heart and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America," he said.