You probably missed it, but one of President Trump's remaining cabinet members was finally confirmed last month. As of April 24, Sonny Perdue, a businessman and former two-term governor of Georgia, is the country's new secretary of agriculture.
Though he's anything but a household name, Perdue—and the decisions he'll make over the next four years—will be deeply significant for North Carolina. Only one month in, he's taken steps that may seriously impact the state's small and mid-size farms and rural communities.
Perdue sailed through his confirmation hearings, with no mention of the ethics probes and fines he incurred during his time as governor. Critics have referred to him as a "mini Trump," and indeed, some of Perdue's first actions lived up to the billing. He issued a statement about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commitment to religious freedom and loosened some Obama-era school lunch nutrition rules.
But during his confirmation hearing, he pledged support for local food systems and programs for smaller farms, telling Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, "These programs will receive my full attention, as they are the future of agriculture in America."
Unfortunately, some of his recent actions have called that support into question. Earlier this month, Perdue outlined the first USDA reorganization since 1994. He proposed combining USDA divisions in charge of farm subsidies and land stewardship, areas in which the department interacts directly with farmers.
So far, so good. But the reorganization—which doesn't appear to need congressional approval—also includes eliminating the undersecretary for rural development. That's a mission area that covers grants and loans for rural housing, utilities, and businesses, and includes funding for things like hospitals, libraries, broadband Internet, food pantries, and community gardens; it has often provided a lifeline to rural areas. And that, say small farm advocates, is very worrying.
"The concern is that all of those programs, many of which have to do with regional food systems, will become less important," says Rochelle Sparko, policy director for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, based in Pittsboro.
The USDA says that the reorganization will "elevate rural development agencies to report directly to the secretary of agriculture," but rural advocates say that's just spin; the undersecretary for rural development already reports directly to the secretary. After the reorganization, says Sparko, "those programs will no longer have someone in the subcabinet advocating for them. It's my experience that programs that don't have someone advocating for them tend to go away."