WASHINGTON -- Struggling dairy farmers who flocked to an expo in Wisconsin last month hoped to hear some encouragement from one of their own -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a Georgia agribusinessman whose father had run a small farm.
But some came away angry after Perdue -- speaking in a state that lost nearly two dairy farms a day last year -- remarked that small farms would not likely survive as the "big get bigger and small go out."
The remark reverberated across the country, prompting calls for his resignation from farm groups, angry editorials and even criticism from his own party. Critics said Perdue's "go big or get out" line played into existing fears that the Trump administration is more interested in helping large corporations than the little guys. Perdue later said he was only acknowledging the current market reality.
Over the past year, Perdue has emerged as President Donald Trump's key advocate in bruising trade wars, traveling the country to give pep talks to frustrated farmers who have seen their incomes drop and exports hit hard by tariff disputes.
As talks between China and the U.S. on a possible first phase of a trade deal continue, Perdue could have some welcome news for this key constituency that helped elect Trump -- a third round of bailout payments on top of the more than $26 billion already being spent.
Two economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said a third round of payments for farmers increasingly is seen as inevitable, particularly if a trade deal with China is not reached soon. The amount has not been determined.
Perdue said Thursday that he was "hopeful" that the pending trade deal would "supplant any type of farm aid needed in 2020." But a third round of aid could be crucial to shoring up Trump's support in rural America as the 2020 election nears, analysts say.
In more than two years in office, Perdue, a former Georgia governor, has been a key promoter of Trump's policies. Trump has said that what he doesn't know about farming, "Sonny teaches me."
Mick Mulvaney, Trump's acting chief of staff, said the White House thinks its support within the farming community is "overwhelmingly solid" in large part because of Perdue's efforts.
"The president really likes people who know their stuff. And it's been very clear from very early on that Sonny knows this industry, that Sonny knows the people, Sonny knows the issues, he knows how to communicate the issues," Mulvaney said in an interview. "So there's a certain level of expertise that immediately sort of, you know, moved him to the head of the class."
As the head of USDA, Perdue has worked to transform the sprawling $140 billion agency of nearly 100,000 employees by cutting staff, jettisoning research and rolling back directives on forest preservation and food safety.
Perdue has run afoul of Democrats in Congress, child poverty advocates and science groups, who worry about his climate-change skepticism -- "I think it's weather patterns, frankly," he said recently -- and moves they say have weakened the agency's research wings.
In recent days, he has been touting China's alleged commitment to more than double its agriculture purchases from the United States -- a trade agreement celebrated by Trump but not committed to paper, much less signed.
But patience is waning in rural America, where farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising. Before the "big get bigger" misstep, Perdue was booed in August in Minnesota over an ill-timed joke that suggested farmers were whiners.
"He's supposed to be the head of the Agriculture Department, a true representative of farmers, but it felt like he was pretty out of touch with what was going on here in farm country," said Darvin Bentlage, 63, a cattle producer in Golden City, Mo. A third trade bailout would help, he said, "but it won't make us whole and we don't want to be making our money at the mailbox. We'd rather be making it at the marketplace."
Perdue oversees an agency whose work affects almost every part of people's lives -- feeding millions through its food stamp program, advising farmers when and how much to plant, protecting America's forests, formulating nutrition guidelines for schoolchildren and safeguarding the nation's food supply.
He declined to be interviewed, but his staff sent a list of accomplishments, including deregulatory moves they said saved $157 million; opening new markets for beef in China, pork in Argentina and rice in Colombia; and a reorganization they say places a greater emphasis on trade and rural development. Farmers have praised his efforts to expand rural broadband and push for simpler rules for guest worker visas.
China and the United States have imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods since Trump imposed the first round of tariffs on China for allegedly unfair trade practices in July 2018, profoundly affecting the global economy.
At an early morning breakfast recently with produce growers just blocks from the White House, some of the farmers who gathered to see Perdue said they were worried and they can't hold out forever. Agriculture exports to China fell from nearly $20 billion in 2017 to $9 billion last year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, with farm bankruptcies rising 24%.
Experts say that many large farm operations, which critics say benefited more from the first round of trade aid than mom-and-pop operations, may be able to hold out longer by tapping into their equity. Others won't be as fortunate.
As Perdue himself often says, "You can't pay the bills with patriotism."
Still, most farmers remain in Trump's camp. Trump's job approval rating among rural Americans remains higher than the country as a whole -- by 54% to 38% -- according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September.
Information for this article was contributed by Jeff Stein, Ben Guarino and Toluse Olorunnipa of The Washington Post.
Business on 11/12/2019
Print Headline: U.S. farmers looking to Perdue for signals as trade war persists