It took Donald Trump months to find the type of agriculture secretary he was looking for: someone who would focus on expanding farm exports to other countries as the president-elect looks to make trade a top priority.
Trump eventually selected former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue Thursday to head the Department of Agriculture, but only after expanding his search as farm organizations lobbied him to pick a leader who would enforce existing trade agreements and expand market access for U.S. producers.
From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land
President-elect Donald Trump, on Sonny Perdue
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who interviewed for the job, said the reason the decision had taken so long was that the Trump team was interested in talking to candidates about how agricultural trade to foreign markets affected farmers. They weren’t aware of the large role the USDA plays in trade until they interviewed him.
“I brought up a couple of new areas: I brought up agricultural trade and how agricultural trade helps the United States,” Miller said in an interview before Perdue was tapped. “I’ve been very active and already set up meetings with the secretary of state and secretary of agriculture from Mexico. I think they (the transition team) were thinking trade is more like manufacturing jobs, Ford cars and Carrier air conditioners. They didn’t gather how important ag trade was, especially with China.”
Perdue and Miller were two of several candidates interviewed, including former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado and two Texans, former state Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and former Texas A&M President Elsa Murano.
A Perdue spokesman did not return a request for comment. But after meeting with Trump in November, Perdue said Trump had been enthusiastic when the former governor had spoken about his trade experience.
The number one thing that I think Americans should focus on: Is he hiring the best and the brightest? Is he hiring people who are committed to enacting real change, respecting taxpayers, bringing about an agenda that will create jobs, lift up wages?
Transition spokesman Sean Spicer
“He asked me what my skills sets were and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a businessperson and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally, and he lit up,” he said. “He knew what it takes to make America great again by doing the things we do well, which is agriculture for one and to free up farmers from the regulations that we see. He was spot on on those issues.”
Perdue, who grew up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine, was a successful small business owner starting several agriculture and transportation-based enterprises before serving two terms as governor. He is the cousin of U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who was Trump’s most vocal supporter in the state.
After interviewing Perdue, Trump was said to have expanded his search, in part to search for a Hispanic he could add to his Cabinet. His selection of Perdue as his final secretary means the Cabinet will lack a Latino member for the first time in three decades.
President-elect Trump’s decision to shut out the Latino community from the top leadership positions in government is a failure to ensure that the government is truly representative of the people it serves
LULAC National President Roger C. Rocha Jr., national president of LULAC, a Latino civil rights organization
A coalition of 16 farmer organizations had pushed Trump to select someone who would expand market access for U.S. producers and enforce trade agreements.
“The importance of trade to America’s farmers and ranchers cannot be overstated,” the groups wrote Trump in a letter Jan. 6. “Positive farm income throughout America would not be possible without access to foreign markets, trade promotion and trade agreements. As the Trump administration assembles its team and policies, U.S. agricultural trade interests must be maintained, not only in existing markets but by expanding access to new markets. Existing markets include China, Canada and Mexico — U.S. farmers’ first, second and third largest foreign customers.”
China and Mexico were two of Trump’s favorite punching bags when it came to trade during his campaign.
Farm groups argued that disrupting U.S. exports to those countries “would have devastating consequences for our farmers and the many American processing and transportation industries and workers supported by these exports.”
The secretary of agriculture oversees nearly 300,000 square miles of national forests and grasslands, the safety of food production and the food stamp program for low-income households.
Combs and Murano did not respond to repeated requests for comment during the agriculture secretary search. Maldonado could not be reached.
Alex Daugherty and Christopher Cadelago of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this article.