Challenges face new ag boss

At one of the inaugural balls, Sonny Perdue, Donald Trump’s choice to run the Department of Agriculture wore a peanut-theme bow tie.

Former Georgia governor Perdue wore a tractor theme tie weeks ago when he boarded the elevator at Trump Tower for the first of several job interviews.

Secretary of Agriculture was the last cabinet position filled — indicative of USDA’s unimportance.

In central Pennsylvania, where rail transportation matters, we can appreciate Perdue’s accomplishments. When governor of Georgia, Perdue jump-started his state’s economic development by improving infrastructure.

Notably, Perdue was influential in the expansion of Savannah, currently the second largest port in the U.S. The port is noted for its integration of railroads to handle cargo. Georgia freight railroads are flourishing.

As with his predecessors, Perdue may find his talents challenged by a nearly-impossible job.

There is the understandable pretense that the Department of Agriculture has something to do with farming. The reality is disappointing.

Yes, USDA continues to publish excellent agricultural statistics, which include the most recent estimate that there are 525 farmers in Blair County. Yes, Pennsylvania is a major producer of dairy products.

However, if a dairy farmer has fewer than 1,000 cows, he or she would have a hard time making a living from price supports, which are oddly blended into the current farm bill as “crop insurance.”

For the residents of central Pennsylvania, the greatest impact the Department of Agriculture has on our daily lives is food stamps and other income support programs.

The Secretary of Agriculture has the power to decide the menu for the school lunch program. In the nation’s lamentable effort to lower the infant mortality rate, Perdue will receive more funds to improve the health of pregnant women than any other agency in government and none of the help required to succeed.

Trump’s agriculture advisors who recommended him expect Perdue to perform what may be a near-miracle when farm legislation comes up for renewal in two years.

In 2014, after considerable difficulty, Congress passed a 10-year 959-page farm bill that costs $956.4 billion over 10 years — of which $756 billion goes for food stamps and other nutrition programs.

If the legislation enacted into law in 2014 lasts for 10 years, why does it have to be renewed in two?

Don’t ask. It does.

I am convinced most money targeted for agriculture programs is not worth spending. The largest item is an $89.8 billion giveaway program to insurance companies and large farmers labeled “crop insurance.”

I find it disturbing that lost in the complexity is the sad reality that no one in the federal government has any clear authority at least to monitor our country’s food policy. Curiously, that is another concern for another time.

The current concern is passing legislation that will keep the money going. None of the recipients will be satisfied. Perdue’s task is to balance out the desires of primarily large farmers and the agribusiness community with members of Congress from urban areas who find themselves forced to vote for farm legislation because doing so means their constituents get food stamps.

The current law cuts food stamps by $8 billion.

Will these cuts remain? Will they increase? The agriculture community wants additional cuts, but at some point cuts that are too severe would make passage impossible.

The unenviable job of reconciling these two disparate interests is the primary reason Sonny Perdue was chosen.

Joel Solkoff is the author of “The Politics of Food.” He resides in State College.