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Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue enjoyed an amicable start to his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next USDA Secretary of Agriculture, receiving bipartisan compliments and fielding a broad range of questions about the agriculture sector and rural America. The meeting concluded in just over two hours.

Perdue spoke candidly about commodity price volatility, immigration reform, trade opportunities with Cuba and Asia, industry regulations, proposed cuts to USDA's budget, food safety, RFS, rural infrastructure, rural safety and more.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., expressed concerns that the Trump administration is not making rural America a priority in the wake of a proposed 21% cut to USDA's budget for 2018. Stabenow noted that several programs within USDA would be "zeroed out or severely cut" under the budget proposal.

"Having not been confirmed, I've had no input into the budget, obviously," he said, but added that during his time as Georgia governor, he came across budgets he didn't like, "but I managed to it."

Regarding immigration reform, Perdue admitted many farms are highly affected by potential outcomes.

"I plan to be a voice to persuade policy makers over this issue," he said. "Virtually every state in the nation is affected to some degree."

Several senators asked about opening trade to Cuba. Perdue said he welcomed that country as a customer but based on a prior trade visit he attended, he said the real issue is Cuba's ability to pay for those commodity exports.

Perdue also expressed interest in developing trade markets in other areas of the world, southeast Asia in particular.

"Trade is the answer," he said.

Perdue was complimentary both of USDA staff and of U.S. farmers.

"There's great talent over there," he said of the current USDA staff. "There's a great opportunity to learn from them."

Meantime, he said farming was largely unrecognized as the "highest tech industry" in the U.S. for the past several years, and said farmers themselves serve as the bedrock for large parts of rural America.

"The vitality of our small communities really depends on a strong farm economy," he said. "Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to being a fighter for our nation's producers."

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said there will be a five-day period for other Senators to submit a statement, and a committee vote will be scheduled afterward.

Roberts and others in the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture said they have high expectations for strong leadership from within USDA, especially as preparations for the 2018 farm bill begin.

"Now more than any other, agriculture needs a champion at the highest level of government," Roberts noted earlier this week during the Farm Bill Summit.

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