NEVADA — With steam from a nearby ethanol plant visible behind him, the nation’s new agriculture secretary confirmed his support for the fuel and its production Friday.
Sonny Perdue, recently confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told a crowd “You have nothing to worry about” regarding the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard and President Donald Trump’s commitment to support the industry.
“Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient,” Perdue said, later sporting a “Don’t Mess with the RFS” pin.
A veterinarian and former Georgia governor, Perdue gave a town hall-style speech on a cattle farm in Nevada, in Story County.
Nevada is home to an ethanol production plan run by Lincolnway Energy and a cellulosic ethanol production plant run by DuPont.
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, hailed Perdue’s comments.
“We fully expect he will continue the USDA’s legacy in this area and continue to aggressively pursue greater access to renewable fuels at the pump,” Shaw said in a statement.
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The speech was pegged as Perdue’s first major policy talk since becoming agriculture secretary.
While he stayed away from many specifics, Perdue made priorities of trade, support for farm labor and working as the nation’s chief agriculture salesman.
“I’m going to be the unapologetic chief advocate, chief salesman for American agriculture products around the world. You grow ’em, we’re going to sell ’em,” he said.
Speaking with reporters after his talk, Perdue said the administration is looking at about a six-month long renegotiation period for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and U.S. Rep. Steve King — joined Perdue, as did Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.
Friday’s visit also came as rumors have swirled that the White House is eyeing Northey for a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Citing unnamed sources, political news website POLITICO reported April 27 that Northey was being looked at for deputy secretary, the department’s No. 2 position.
Northey has said himself that he would consider leaving his current position for a role with the USDA.
“I don’t know what role that might be,” Northey said on a call with reporters last week. “I certainly would love to work with him as Iowa secretary of ag. If there is another job that is offered, I would be very willing to consider that as well.”
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Perdue said he and his agency are still examining candidates, including for about 17 positions that would require Senate approval. He did not give hints about whom he would tap for his deputy, but joked that Northey’s name has been dropped — including by Grassley.
When asked if he’d want a deputy from the Midwest, Perdue responded, “I think overall, from a deputy, from an undersecretary standpoint, the goal of a good leader is to get diversity across there. Geographical diversity is important. Industry diversity is important, you can’t have all corn growers … . Not only that, you’ve got gender diversity, you’ve got racial diversity. I want the USDA to look like America and I want it to be the best, most effectively managed agency in the U.S. That starts with good people.”
When asked about a timeline, Perdue noted that “you’ll probably hear some announcements in the next couple of weeks.”
He takes over the role at a time when the nation’s farm economy faces significant headwinds from lower commodity prices. Net U.S. farm income has dropped from $123 billion in 2013 to an estimated $62.3 billion this year, according to the USDA.
In Iowa, it has fallen from $8.3 billion in 2013 to an estimated $5.6 billion.
When questioned about farm labor, Perdue said that, “The president understands with regard to immigrant farm labor that these are people that have helped our farmers across the country. He’s very concerned about getting the criminal, illegal element out of the country and I support that … but we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t disrupt a farm labor supply here that’s been very integral to agricultural production.”
Perdue, sworn in April 25, is the first U.S. ag secretary to come from outside the Midwest since 2001 when George Bush appointed Ann Veneman from California. Mike Johanns of Nebraska replaced her in 2005.
The last agriculture secretary to come from a Southern state was Mike Espy of Mississippi during Bill Clinton’s administration.
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