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Trump's Pick To Lead USDA Heads To Washington With Some Political Baggage

Sonny Perdue, who's been named to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has held many political offices in his home state of Georgia. Farmers liked him. Environmentalists, not so much.
Evan Vucci
Sonny Perdue, who's been named to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has held many political offices in his home state of Georgia. Farmers liked him. Environmentalists, not so much.

Last year, Georgia's former governor, Sonny Perdue, called up a farmer named Gary Paulk for some advice about planting blackberry bushes. Paulk thought it was a prank.

"I picked up the phone and he said, 'Gary, how you doing? This is Sonny Perdue,' " Paulk recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah right, and I'm Mickey Mouse.' " Paulk says he apologized when he realized it actually was Perdue on the line.

Perdue is now Donald Trump's pick for secretary of agriculture, and Paulk expects that he'll keep calling farmers for advice, and maybe just conversation.

The 70-year-old Perdue has deep roots in agriculture. He's the son of a farmer and ran three businesses in the industry. Along with a farming and garden supply company, and a shipping company that operates through the Savannah port, Perdue ran AGrowstar, a company that buys and sells grain throughout the southeast.

Perdue, a veterinarian by training, joked that the dirty nature of job qualified him to be governor.

While in office he regularly visited clinics to spay and neuter cats and dogs.

"I don't get to do this every day," Perdue told a local paper. "When you have a governor who's a veterinarian and can draw a little bit of attention to the issue, it's still very important."

When Perdue was Georgia's governor, Paulk, who grows muscadine grapes, which are often used to make a sweet Southern wine, served on Perdue's agriculture advisory commission.

"He took a very hands-on approach to it," Paulk says. "He took it very serious, and took our advice to him very seriously."

As Paulk describes it, his advice to Perdue as governor was similar to what organized farm groups want Perdue to accomplish today, as head of the USDA: Loosen regulations, increase public awareness of agriculture, and boost trade.

"He comes from the farm and he's very familiar with agriculture and how important it is to not just Georgia's economy but the American economy," says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a native Georgian himself. Duvall, who was previously head of the Georgia Farm Bureau, says Perdue has an "open-door policy" when it comes to farmers.

But while farmers like Paulk and DuVall praise their former governor, environmental and consumer safety groups have a harsher assessment.

Neill Herring, a long-time environmental lobbyist in Georgia, says Perdue focused on a certain kind of people in rural areas: ones with money.

"He was focused on people who were comfortable," says Herring. "Those were his constituents, those were the people who he aimed to please, and I think he did."

As governor, Perdue was caught in a more than a few scandals involving his businesses and personal property deals.

He convinced the state legislature to spend millions on a fishing museum just miles from his home that hasn't attracted as many visitors as expected. The New York Times called it a symbol of wasteful spending.

Perdue attracted national attention during a drought in 2007, when he held a prayer for rain on the steps of the Georgia state capitol.

"I'm here today to appeal to you and to all Georgians, and all people who believe in the power of prayer, to ask God to shower our state, our region, our nation with the blessings of water," he said.

After the announcement of Perdue's nomination, national environmental groups unleashed a chorus of criticism. "It seems like he's well poised to gut agriculture regulations that protect independent farmers, workers and consumers so that agribusiness can continue to prioritize profits above food safety, farmer livelihoods, worker safety and the environment," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch.

Duvall says the criticism of Perdue is simply wrong.

"I have hunted with Sonny Perdue," says Duvall, "He's just a really good guy, and I know that he appreciates the natural resources that we have in this country."

Copyright 2017 WABE 90.1

Johnny joined WABE in March, 2015. Before joining the station, he was a producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, and NPR in Washington D.C.