Senate Confirms Sonny Perdue to Lead Agriculture Department

By Jacob Bunge Features Dow Jones Newswires

The U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as secretary of the Agriculture Department, ending a three-month vacancy atop the sprawling agency as the food sector confronts potential changes to U.S. trade policy and farm-level regulations.

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Mr. Perdue, a Republican who grew up on a dairy farm and has managed agribusinesses, was confirmed in an 87-11 vote, garnering significant support from Democratic senators who saw him as an experienced manager who will maintain supports for U.S. farmers navigating a crop-price slump.

Awaiting Mr. Perdue is the worst farm-economy slump in decades, with U.S. net farm income projected to fall for a fourth consecutive year to $62.3 billion, half the record $123 billion farmers earned in 2013, according to USDA projections. The agricultural sector, which heavily relies on exports, has also watched warily as President Trump's administration has moved ahead with an overhaul of U.S. trade policy, including withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which farm groups generally had backed.

The vote makes Mr. Perdue among the last members of Mr. Trump's cabinet to be confirmed, though many other senior vacancies remain. Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative, and Alexander Acosta, nominated to head the Labor Department, still await confirmation.

It also fills a gap that troubled some crop and livestock producers across U.S. farm states, which heavily factored into Mr. Trump's electoral victory in November. The president's focus on deregulation resonated with farmers and ranchers who chafed under federal environmental and regulatory restrictions that some saw as onerous.

Mr. Perdue is expected to start work at the USDA, which employs around 100,000, by addressing employees Tuesday. The agency has a hand in promoting U.S. grain, meat and fiber to foreign buyers, regulates genetically engineered crops, inspects meatpacking plants and oversees the $71 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. He also needs to fill senior positions at the USDA to oversee areas such as trade, food safety and rural development.

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Mr. Perdue also will step into a growing trade dispute with Canada over U.S.-produced milk used to make cheese, which some U.S. producers have argued is unfairly shut out of the Canadian market. Separately, U.S. ranchers also lost pastures and animals in March to wildfires, while chicken farmers have ratcheted up defense amid new cases of avian influenza.

And Mr. Perdue may have to address those challenges on a smaller budget, after Mr. Trump in March outlined a budget proposal that would reduce the USDA's discretionary funding by about one-fifth to $17.9 billion.

"It's just going to be very good to have a secretary finally," said Bill Northey, Iowa's secretary of agriculture.

Mr. Perdue is unrelated to the family that owns the poultry company Perdue Farms Inc.

Write to Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 24, 2017 19:05 ET (23:05 GMT)