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Winds Of Change Could Come Slowly For Agriculture Nominee Perdue

Bob, Robbie and Leah Maass (from left) ready equipment for planting season on their farm near Ellsworth, Iowa.
Amy Mayer
Iowa Public Radio
Bob, Robbie and Leah Maass (from left) ready equipment for planting season on their farm near Ellsworth, Iowa.

If confirmed Monday agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue confronts an industry in search of stability.

The farm economy is declining, trade with vital global markets is in disarray and immigration policy is in flux. In his initial budget, Trump suggested a 21 percent cut to USDA's discretionary spending, so Perdue would want to jump into Washington policy discussions quickly.

Perdue would find a desk at USDA piled high with priorities and will be one of the last members of President Donald Trump's cabinet to be seated.

I think he would be a tremendous asset and get things moving. No theories, actual actions.

In the Corn Belt, however, it is planting season. That means that most farmers are less worried about Washington and more focused on the weather.

As 35-year-old Robbie Maass and his parents Leah and Bob open the sliding doors on their machine shed near Ellsworth, Iowa, light from a heavy, grey day streams in to show off their giant, blue 16-row planter. Bob Maass kicks the tires and taps at the wheels to knock off mud from last year. The Maass family is ready and waiting, Robbie says, for drier weather.

Leah Maass says they have also been waiting on Sonny Perdue's confirmation. But the slow process has not bothered her. She is confident he's a good man for the job.

"He can envision what's happening and process it and know solutions," Leah Maass said, "unlike some of us who are so easily confused."

Perdue grew up on a farm, trained as a veterinarian, worked for decades in family agribusinesses and served two terms as governor of Georgia. While in office, Perdue was dogged by complaints that he was still involved in the family businesses. Some environmental and consumer groups say he is too cozy with industry. But Maass says Perdue's farm background and experience as an executive will be good for agriculture.

He's not going to be able to start from a running start.

"I think he would be a tremendous asset and get things moving," Leah Maass said. "No theories, actual actions."

Many of the nation's large and influential agriculture and commodity groups support Perdue's selection. Questions remain, however, over the ag policies Trump will ask him to pursue.

"He's not going to be able to start from a running start," said Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley. "It's sort of a stand-still right now."

Take the budget, Shelley says. Rural groups, agriculture industry groups and food stamp advocates worry about the president's proposed cuts to the Agriculture Department's discretionary spending. By the time the agriculture secretary starts work, budget discussions will be well underway. Does Perdue have any shot at contributing to those conversations?

"Oh, I'd say the hope is about zilch," Shelley said.

The slow action on an agriculture secretary speaks to how farm and rural issues rank in Washington right now, Shelley says, echoing a common refrain.

"I think it is crystal-clear that this is not the No. 1 objective of the current Republican leadership at either end of Pennsylvania Ave.," Shelley said.

That, he adds, may not sit well with farm country voters who turned out in large numbers for Republicans last fall.

"That's basically running the risk of poking your fingers in the eyes of your supporters," Shelley said.

While the Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary, producers have also grown nervous as farm economics was swept up in tough talk over trade. Mexico, for example, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. corn, is threatening to get its grain instead from South America.

Farmer Kurt Hora, who heads the Iowa Corn Growers Association, says that would be a serious blow to U.S. farmers. Hora worries that among the president's proposed cuts to agriculture is money spent on promoting U.S. products abroad.

"We want to make sure that we don't lose those markets because it takes a lot more to get a market back than it does to maintain and build one," Hora said.

Leah Maass, for one, is willing to be patient with the Trump administration.

"That's the great thing about this country: things do take time," she said. "If we rushed into them, you know like a dictatorship takes over and this is how it's going to be, then I would be concerned."

Copyright 2021 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.