This week marked the Senate confirmation vote for Sonny Perdue as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. While his confirmation was not unexpected, it comes after a several weeks delay.
During this time, we’ve been thinking about Secretary Perdue and how our New England farms will fare under his leadership. Last month, during his opening remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing, Perdue stated that he would work to advance four primary goals if appointed Secretary of Agriculture. They are (roughly): 1) clearing the way for growth and job creation in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors; 2) prioritizing the concept of customer service – and treating all of us taxpayers as customers in this regard; 3) focusing on food safety and a secure food supply; and 4) sustainability and land stewardship, quoting his father “[I]f you take care of the land, it will take care of you. Owned or rented, we’re all stewards, and our responsibility is to leave it better than we found it.”
Goals are Good, But Actions Will Speak Louder Than Words
While these goals sound well and good, we still have concerns about Perdue’s priorities as he begins this new role. His decades-long ties to agribusiness (including his own work in the fertilizer industry) call into question his ability to champion and support the needs of all farmers, not just those involved in Big Ag.
Now more than ever our food system must evolve into a resilient resource, and that means supporting our small family farms. It means advocating for sustainable practices and conservation efforts. And it means funding with an eye to the future of food: diverse production at smaller farms operated by farmers of all ages and backgrounds, local and regional networks for those farmers, and stewardship for future generations.
Secretary Perdue needs to prove to the American public that his past reputation is not a template for his work ahead at the USDA. While Governor of Georgia, Perdue’s track record included: multiple ethics inquiries relating to his agribusiness companies and conflicts of interests, courting factory farm expansion in the state, and food safety and inspection unit budget cuts. Not surprisingly, also under Perdue’s watch, two major (and deadly) food-borne illness outbreaks were linked to the state food safety unit’s low budget and resultant lack of staff capacity.
Sustaining and Growing Our Local Food System
Our hope as citizens (and “customers”) is that Perdue will stand by and live up to the words of his father. He should and must push forward programs and initiatives that support sustainable agriculture — Big(ger) Ag is not what this country should pursue if truly focusing on stewardship, renewability, and sustainability.
What New England and the country as a whole need are farm and food policies that support a sustainable livelihood for food producers, provide safe and healthy food choices for consumers, and ensure a real future for the food system in the face of environmental change.
We need programs that serve all farmers, and ensure all people have easy, affordable access to fresh, healthy food.