What industry association press releases taught me about Perdue’s first 100 days

…in so many words, that is

Here’s a version of the headline you’ve surely seen: Trump taps Sonny Perdue for Agriculture Secretary. News of the final cabinet pick broke Wednesday night. Politico’s Morning Agriculture (MA) pretty much owns (and has owned) this story, so rather than bestow upon you a backgrounder, I’ll lend you instead a link: everything you wanted to know about Perdue but were afraid to ask, courtesy MA.

Meanwhile, my email box has been pulsing with press releases from various first responders to such an announcement. When read in succession, they feel something like a political pastiche, a patchwork of potential pitfalls for Perdue (how many P’s does it take to harvest a sentence)? But they can tell us a lot about how divided the interests of the agriculture sector really are–and how hard it can be to articulate those interests in any meaningful way.

National Corn Grower’s Association (NCGA), which represents the interests of, well, U.S. corn growers, was first up to the plate. Its press release read, in part, “The National Corn Growers Association congratulates Governor Perdue on his nomination to lead USDA. We look forward to his confirmation hearing, and learning more about his positions on issues important to corn farmers and the entire agriculture industry.” I’d brand that message: “Benign! But supportive!”

Farm incomes have dropped for three straight years as prices for many farm commodities have dipped below the cost of production. 

It went on: “Agriculture is the backbone of rural America, and we need strong leadership within USDA to keep moving the industry forward through difficult economic times. That means protecting risk management programs, continuing to grow the renewable fuels industry, expanding foreign markets and increasing demand for U.S. agricultural products throughout the world.” Okay, okay, now we’re warming up. I see “risk”, I see “difficult economic times” (Wait, is that really what NCGA means to convey?) And then there are the old, familiar ag-issue workhorses: “renewable fuels,” and “foreign markets.” Those words are so uncharged these days, they sound like departments in a Kmart.

Moving on. Here’s an excerpt from National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) press release, which came in early this afternoon: “There is much work ahead for the next Secretary of Agriculture, and we hope that Mr. Perdue will stand as a champion of the programs and policies that support a sustainable agriculture and food system.” Now, if we cut the word “sustainable”, this part could’ve been written by National Corn.

But then NSAC doubles down: “This includes USDA investments in farmer-led conservation and research, rural economic development and local and regional food systems, as well as technical and financial assistance for historically underserved farmers and ranchers. It also includes protections for contract livestock farmers from corporate integrators who would seek to subjugate their rights; rights which could be better protected with the implementation of the Farmer Fair Practices Rules.”

“Farm-to-income debt ratios are the highest since 1985.”

Hmmm: I detect in the NSAC release hints of new GIPSA rules, with notes of USDA allocations in support of agriculture programs at Hispanic-led institutions. Nice finish.

On to North American Meat Institute (NAMI), an industry trade association representing U.S. packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey. NAMI kept its statement so succinct, it doesn’t even feel as long as its name. “We welcome news that a person like Governor Sonny Perdue, with his extensive knowledge and experience in the agricultural sector, has been nominated to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture. Agriculture is a critically important sector of the U.S. economy and is responsible for feeding Americans and people around the world.” That’s all, folks.

And finally, received late today, comments from The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Its comments may have come in last, but they tell me the most (did you know USDA has a staff of 90,000?) about what seems front-of-mind for those out in the fields: “Farm incomes have dropped for three straight years as prices for many farm commodities have dipped below the cost of production. Farm-to-income debt ratios are the highest since 1985. Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, the third straight year in which the record was broken.”

Say no more, IATP. Say no more.

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.