Peter has reminded me that if we veer off into political screeds every time we are upset these days, we will never keep our focus where it needs to be, on matters agricultural. In general he’s right. But we don’t live in just “general” times. Although my concern this week is the future of the US Department of Agriculture, I feel compelled to first address briefly a more explosive issue. Because in order to be engaged with agricultural topics, you actually need to exist. If America 75 years ago had turned its back on refugees the way President Trump is having us do today, I would not be alive to write about such matters as Sonny Perdue’s nomination for Secretary of Agriculture.
My father, it so happens, came here as a 14 year old Jewish refugee, on his own in the middle of World War II, bearing the passport of a dangerous, trouble-exporting country: Nazi Austria. He was a refugee precisely because the situation in his home country put his life in danger, just as so many Syrians are endangered today. Like many of them, he had to cross hostile European terrain on foot, scavenging for food. He always told us that he would not eat onions because he associated them with what he was able to scavenge from the garbage cans of Vichy France as he made his way to Portugal for passage to America. Because of the influence of America Firsters, America had many shameful moments when it came to refugees in the 1940s. But had the government decreed an indefinite freeze on accepting refugees from countries that exported terror, as Mr. Trump has done with Syria now, my father’s survival, let alone his arrival in time to meet my mother and have me and my brother and sister, would have been in grave doubt.
To indefinitely postpone refuge because the refugees come from a troubled country where evil abounds is to turn the whole concept of refuge on its head, holding the very circumstances that create their need for refuge against them. It is immoral idiocy, made doubly immoral because our country through errors of judgment helped create the dangerous circumstances to begin with.
Ok, enuf said. My real question for today is whether we will see a similarly topsy turvy approach to agricultural policy? The signals so far are mixed, mostly because agriculture is clearly not an important issue for this President. Consider the effort to roll back the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty which benefited American agriculture, from Midwest corn growers to Washington orchards, hugely. While trade barriers with Mexico might boost American manufacturing, they will surely hurt farmers, especially commodity exporters who dominate big agribusiness. Such a consequence to agriculture does not seem to concern the President.
Indeed, it seems pretty clear that Mr. Trump has a general disdain for what farmers do. The movie “You’ve been Trumped,” about the construction of his Scottish golf course, showed him describing the very normal looking farm abutting his Scottish golf course as a “disgusting” sight his golfers shouldn’t have to see. When the farmer refused to sell his property to the course, the Trump organization cut off his water supply, the lifeblood of a farm, and did not restore it for five years.
Has Mr. Trump’s disdain yet affected the U.S. Department of Agriculture? To track what’s been happening to the agency, I have been checking every week to see if the wonderful report, USDA Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, published in May, 2016, https://www.usda.gov/documents/building-blocks-implementation-plan-progress-report.pdf, is still up on the USDA website. The report identified 10 “building blocks,” spanning a range of technologies and practices, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage, and generate clean renewable energy. The document seems a great blueprint for agricultural policy.
The good news is the report is still there, though I wonder for how long. Climate change has been scrubbed from the White House website, but so far the issue continues to be recognized as a problem requiring human action on the USDA’s website. Yes, agriculture clearly is something of an afterthought in this administration, and will, perhaps, benefit to some degree from what Senator Daniel Moynihan once suggested as a good policy option for the poor – “benign neglect.” Though I hardly think it’s a good thing to neglect something as central to human life as safeguarding our food supply.
Which brings us to the nomination of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to be Agriculture Secretary. This was, not surprisingly, the last cabinet nomination, barely making it in under the wire before inauguration day. On the positive side, Mr. Perdue is the son of a farmer and a teacher. He grew up on his family’s farm and earned a PhD in Veterinary Science. Also, according to the new Georgia Encyclopedia, he and his wife have served as foster parents to kids awaiting adoption. He is apparently a religious man. Possibly also on the positive side, unlike so many of Trump’s cabinet nominees, he is a mere millionaire, not a billionaire.
On the negative side of his personal history, Perdue made most of his money selling chemical fertilizers, a major source of ground and water pollution. Ironically, given his farm background, he is a climate change denier. He had this to say on climate change: “It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.” Perdue’s comment leads me to question just who is disconnected from reality. While religious faith can be a real positive, one of his major responses as Governor to a severe drought in Georgia was to lead a public vigil to pray for rain, rather than to take steps to address climate change.
Perdue’s history as a public official is a mixed one. Like many conservative southerners, he was once a Democrat but switched to the Republican party in the 1990s. As governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011, he was a fierce foe of gay marriage, evidenced nostalgia for the Confederacy, and supported draconian voter I.D. laws. In 2006 he directed harsh crackdowns on immigrant agricultural labor through raids on chicken processing plants and the like. But he has evolved somewhat on the last issue. As the essential role played by this undocumented labor force in agriculture became apparent, toward the end of his term he refrained from endorsing similarly harsh crackdowns proposed by his successor. Indeed, he said America would have to make people of color and people who were not American born feel more welcome.
Whether his shift constituted a change of heart or an interest in perpetuating economic exploitation can be debated. His actions as governor included some social positives, like a focus on child and family welfare, positive resolution of the controversy over the Georgia state flag in a way that drew the ire of Confederate flag fans, and aggressive economic development measures. On the other hand, he has benefited directly and indirectly from big agribusiness subsidies and has received oodles of political contributions from that sector, including Monsanto. According to Alternet, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the multi-billion-dollar lobbying group that represents Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Coca-Cola, and General Mills, rushed to praise Perdue’s nomination.
We can only guess how Perdue’s background will lead him to respond to certain hot button issues. Some have speculated that his antipathy to regulations and his sympathy for big agribusiness would lead him to oppose restrictions on routine use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth. But it seems equally possible to me that his veterinary science doctorate could lead him to want to prevent the dangers to public health that may result from antibiotic over-use.
Tom Vilsack, an Iowa Democrat who served as an excellent Secretary of Agriculture under President Obama, endorsed Perdue’s nomination last week. Vilsack, who was on Hillary’s short list for Vice President, praised Perdue’s governing experience, his familiarity with the needs of farmers and ranchers, and the value he places on Land Grant universities, including historically black institutions which have been essential to the development of the rural south.
I would not so ringingly endorse Perdue. My ideal Secretary of Agriculture would want to end big agribusiness’s subsidies and redirect the money to smaller, more environmentally responsible producers; would help farmers adopt practices that fight climate change and deal with its effects; would help new young farmers enter the field through education and training.; and would beef up staff to assure even handed enforcement of food safety rules. I don’t see Perdue doing any of that, and his attitude toward climate change is particularly worrisome. Yet unlike the majority of Trump’s nominees, there are reasons to think that by background and personal history Perdue might be capable of some sensitivity in executing his office. He has a working knowledge of government, and, unlike several other cabinet nominees, does not seem instinctively hostile to the mission of his department.
Had Trump truly thought the USDA important, he would undoubtedly have nominated a billionaire without governing experience who had a history of fighting against the agency and its mission. He gave us instead a more ambiguous nominee. If you ask my forecast on Sonny Perdue, I’d say not sunny, but probably not stormy; rather, cloudy and overcast.