NEVADA, Iowa — It was a sunny Sonny day.
On a bright and warm May 5, new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited the Iowa farm and feedlot of Bill Couser, taking time to meet numerous agricultural and political leaders.
There were few surprises in Perdue’s speech, but the Iowa crowd was generally impressed — although after a week of cold and rain, many farmers were just happy to see the sun shine.
“I think it was great,” said Dave Struthers, a farmer and pork producer from Collins. “He’s a hands-on kind of guy. I think he understands livestock since he was a vet.”
Iowa State Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, said it was exciting to have Perdue come to his rural district. And he said Perdue’s experience as both a veterinarian and a former governor should be beneficial.
“USDA is an administrative job,” Deyoe said. “Having someone who is an ex-governor like (former secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom) Vilsack was helpful.”
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill said he was pleased by the fact Perdue visited the state only eight days after his confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
“I’m inspired,” Hill said. “This gentleman is a science-based, data-driven secretary.”
And Hill said it appears Perdue has already had a positive impact on agriculture, crediting him with providing an important voice for agriculture in recent discussions within the Trump administration regarding trade and other issues.
He said agriculture appeared to have “averted a disaster” in the Trump administration’s recent decision to try to re-negotiate parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement while remaining a part of it, instead of pulling out of NAFTA outright.
Couser, who runs a diversified farm operation that includes a large feedlot, said it was an honor to host Perdue.
“I’m very excited,” Couser said. “He told me what I wanted to hear. … He’s coming in with an agenda for agriculture.”
But the farm tour was about animal health and production, rather than about policy. After touring the farm and talking to some local farmers and dignitaries, Perdue climbed to the stage and basked in the combination of sunshine and a friendly audience.
“I would be happy to be an adoptive Iowa son,” he said to the appreciative crowd, stressing that while the people of Iowa and of his home state of Georgia may have their differences, they have much more in common with each other.
He credited his predecessor, Vilsack, with doing an excellent job at the USDA, while also complimenting his boss, President Trump, with having a vision for the nation’s economy.
But he stressed science and trade. Perdue said agriculture needs to depend on facts-based sound science. He pointed out that upon leaving the farm, he was going to tour the facilities at the nearby National Animal Disease Center in Ames. He also stressed that farmers need to be better communicators with the non-farm public, and he praised the work of FFA students, such as the ones from Nevada High School who stood near his podium.
He talked about trade, saying part of his job at the USDA will be to promote American agricultural products around the globe.
He talked specifically about China, saying “they want American beef, and we’re going to find a way to get it in there.”
“You grow it and we’ll sell it,” he told the farmers.
Perdue also took questions from the audience. When asked about waiting lists and red tape for federal farm programs, he said simply, “I’m on it.”
He fielded several questions about alternative energy. At one point he turned and pointed behind him toward the town — in the distance you could see a corn-based ethanol plant, a cellulosic ethanol facility and wind turbines. If you added solar power to the picture, you could see the gamut of alternative energy, he said, adding that much of it is either based on the farm or uses agricultural products.
One thing Perdue did not talk about was who he would name to deputy or under-secretary positions at USDA. There have been rumors Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or some other official from Iowa or the Midwest might be in line for a high position at the USDA to give the agency more geographic balance, since Perdue comes from the South.
He said only that the process will take time, and he hopes to make some announcements in the next few weeks, reminding farmers there are 17 sub-cabinet USDA positions that require confirmation from the U.S. Senate.
But the day was in many ways an introduction, with Perdue getting the chance to meet Iowa farmers and for them to meet him.
“I’m proud to be called an agriculturalist,” he said. “That makes me sleep well at night.”