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Stories focused on energy & environment topics throughout the state of Kansas.

USDA Secretary Talks Climate Change, Immigration

Harvest Public Media
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue makes a speech to the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City on April 28.

Sonny Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at the end of April.

Harvest Public Media’s Peggy Lowe sat down with Perdue on his fourth day on the job at the American Royal complex in Kansas City, Missouri. She asked him about the Trump administration’s priorities for our food system, government nutrition programs, immigration policy and the future of the Agriculture Department.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Peggy Lowe: You’ve said you would be interested in tying SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), food stamps, to a work program for recipients. Is that true?

Sonny Perdue: As a former governor, I'm kind of a Federalist when we allow states to make a lot of those decisions. But if you look back at the original Supplemental Nutrition Program it had a work component to it, it was a temporary type of thing. So it really goes back to the statute. Those were relieved during the Obama administration. But in Georgia we use those very effectively, those temporary dollars to get people food as they needed it in their crisis of losing their job.

I was governor from 2003 to 2011. Those were some tough economic times for people where we used those very effectively, but what we also used other monies for was job training. Their job went away, most people want another job, they don't want to be a continual hand out with SNAP benefits. So we were trying to…we gave them child care, we gave them transportation, we gave them job training dollars to help move them through that temporary award of supplemental nutrition awards.

Do you see SNAP benefits being un-tied (to farm policy) for the future Farm Bill? A lot of conservatives, like the Heritage Foundation, would like to see that happen.

I met with about 75 members of the Senate during my confirmation process. I don't know that I found anyone that really believes that was a good idea, and neither do I.

I think, again, when you look at the noble career industry of food production we want to have a safety net for our producers, but we also want to have a safety net for our consumers and that's what the supplemental program is. I think the coalition that comes together (to pass a Farm Bill), those that may be more concerned about the consumption process and the supplemental program – nutrition program – rather than those agriculturalists who are concerned about the producers, we're tied together.

The Trump Administration has been just hostile to climate change research. When you addressed USDA workers, however, you said the agency would take a facts- and science-first approach. Yet, you've also called climate change “a running joke.” So will the USDA be committed to finding scientific research to aid farmers and ranchers in adapting to climate change?

I hope you don't mind me correcting the premise of your question in those areas. I wouldn't agree that President Trump has been hostile to climate science research. I think what the president has said is that we want sound science, evidence-based research, that lead us to make fact-based decisions and that's essentially what I've said. I like that.

The second thing I would correct is I never said it was a “running joke” at all. I used a metaphor when I was talking about Common Core (education standards) about how we exaggerate on either side, the left and the right, about some things – that was the article that was quoted.

The National Journal article. (Edit: the National Review)

Yes, that was the article that was quoted. But if you go back and read the whole article, you'll see it was about Common Core. I use the silliness of some of these arguments there that we make on the left and the right to use the argument about Common Core.

So I also believe in what I said to the workers at USDA. That is exactly what I believe. I'm a scientist. I'm a veterinarian and I believe that that sound science should drive and guide our decisions. As we have seen on the climate and on other things, sound science does not always lead to a unanimous conclusion. And we have to weigh the different experiments and the different things that come about, whether it's human medicine or whether it's crop science or whether it's many things. Science is not a gold nugget, one-voice-says-all. So we have to weigh that.

The other problem with science today is that, and this is acknowledged in the larger media, is that many scientists begin with an end in mind. They begin with an ideological bent in mind… The great thing about science-based experiments is they start with no agenda and we've got to be very careful when we look at sound science, evidence-based, that we utilize the research that begins with no agenda and let the chips fall where they may.

But, sir, most science out there on climate change right now – regardless of agenda, across all spectrums – shows that climate change is a fact. Do you agree with that statement?

I agree that climate change is a fact.

I think the real controversy about climate change and what we do…If you go back and look at my record in Georgia, we had an energy policy of which a large portion of that was dealing with climate change. I've been on a farm since the early ‘50s and I can tell you the climate is changing. But the fact of what the cause of it is really what is in dispute. In some of the things we've done from manmade causes I think are very unproductive. So the science, we don't know definitively in my opinion what is causing climate change.

Many people feel like from a scientific basis that it's settled. I don't agree with that. I think we still need to pursue the things that we conduct. As governor and as secretary of agriculture, I believe there are things that we can do that makes sense to contribute to clean water, clean air and a better environment on our farms, in our fields, in our forests that we ought to do irrespective of what the cause of climate change is. And that's what we'll be doing.

But yet you say that you're going to get rid of a lot of those “onerous regulations.”

Onerous regulations that do not contribute to a better environment. Some of them are onerous because they're not effective. They are check-the-box kind-of clipboard situations that…farmers react to and reject.

People come on their farms with a prescriptive method of ‘You've got to do this, this, this, and this.’ Why don't we look at outcomes? I’m an outcomes kind of guy, not an input kind of guy. We've had regulations that are so input oriented. ‘You've got to be three-feet away from the wall here and you've got to be two-feet above the ceiling or below the ceiling,’ and those kind of things. Let's look at the outcomes of what's happening on our farms and judge that rather than the prescriptive nature of telling us how to do that.

Another example of that really, frankly, is our school nutrition program. Our dietary guidelines have tied the hands of our schools and dietitians and they are very frustrated trying to meet these arbitrary guidelines over sodium and whole grains and things like that. I trust the school lunch ladies of America to provide a nutritious meal for our kids. I mean I'm the benefit of that, I’m the product of that. I know we – students, teachers, parents – always loved our lunchroom ladies and I still do, and I'm going to depend on them to tell me. You talk about science? They can tell me more science about what it takes to put a nutritious meal on there sometimes than some arbitrary dietary guidelines.

You’ve just won the votes of all the lunch ladies of America. Let's talk a little bit about immigration reform. You said during your confirmation hearings that you support making it easier for dairy farmers to employ immigrants. Yet in 2006, you issued a major crackdown on undocumented workers in Georgia, and that really hurt farms and even meat plants in your state. How will you be moving forward in the USDA on immigration and farmworkers specifically?

I wish you could have been in the farmer’s roundtable (at the White House) the other day as the president sat there and talked about, understood (the issues) from those variety of those farmers from every part of the country, every part of the industry.

We had dairy farmers there, vegetable farmers there, timber farmers and row crop farmers from all over. They described to (President Trump) the challenge, and what he talked about that day – and it’s what my theory will be – is that the president is very concerned about illegal immigrants who are committing crimes in this country. Those are the ones that he wants to remove from our midst that are preying upon our United States citizens.

He understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms -- many of them that are doing a great job, contributing to the economy of the United States. That is not his focus nor will that be my focus. In fact, I’ve hired a lady to come to work, a labor lawyer who had been at Farm Bureau, to help us design a program. I’m hoping she can provide the President and his administration a blueprint and a program of how we can separate and divide and understand who are the immigrants that are contributing to American society and contributing…putting that food and fiber, that food on the table and the fiber that we need for clothes. But he has no desire to remove people who are contributing to the economic society. Nor do I.

That sounds like a pathway to citizenship for, say, agricultural workers.

Those are your words, not mine.

OK, but it does sound like you’re going to come up with some sort of legal solution to help undocumented workers who are here working on farms and within the agricultural industry to stay here.

I think the president wants to distinguish between the people who are contributing productively, particularly in the agricultural sector here, have been here for a long while that maybe might have sponsors that can testify and vouch on their behalf and determine that. We’re way early in that process. I can’t talk about a path to citizenship or anything like that. We don’t know what it will be like. I’m trying to describe the heart of the president and my heart regarding how we treat people. Some people here who are undocumented who have been working in the United States for a number of years. Those people are different than the criminal people, illegal criminals preying on the population of the United States of America.

Voters from rural areas said during the election that they felt overlooked by Washington. Some have said that led to the rise of Donald Trump, who really spoke to them. So his budget proposal would cut some 21 percent of USDA funds. Don't you think that sends a message to rural America that perhaps they're not going to get the kind of support that they have in the past?

Well, I think everyone is concerned about the budget concerns and I understand that, too. I am as well. But I look at the budget the way I looked at the revenue estimates when I was governor. We had a balanced budget state and if the revenue estimate was not there, if the money was not there to spend, we weren't able to spend it constitutionally. There was a prohibition. So my goal as secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture is to manage to that and inform the Office of Management and Budget and the president's administration over where the most effective way to use that those dollars are.

Now will it be 21 percent (cuts)? You know the president proposes a budget, Congress actually appropriates. So you've got members of Congress on both sides, House and Senate, are going to come and backfill some of those things that they will see in a budget. Will it be 21 percent at the end? Probably not. But whatever it is, I'm going to manage that.

We're going to do more with less. That's the thrill of meeting with these 1,500 USDA workers here in Kansas City. We're going to aspire to do more with less. And there's any organization large or small that can take a haircut from time to time and I think it makes us stronger.

I governed in Georgia from 2003 to 2011. Five of the eight budgets I presented to the General Assembly had less money than the year before. And you know what? We survived. Not only did we survive, we thrived. And we learned that we could accomplish more and there was an upsurge in morale, frankly, in our civil workforce, our state workforce. They were excited to be on the winning side for customer service and doing more, even in the times of furloughs and not having all the pay raises that we could give them on an ongoing basis. It was so exciting for me to see that.

I think in these times that the American public knows that we cannot afford a $20 trillion dollar deficit to continue to grow. And that's immoral on my part, kicking that debt down to my grandchildren's generation. That's the kind of thing that I think the public understands. Do any of us like to take a financial hit in our budgets, whether it's personal, business or government? No, but we understand we can't continue spending more than we take in on an ongoing basis.

Does that “haircut” you just mentioned, does that include layoffs at USDA?

We don't know that yet. I'm hoping that it won't.

Obviously, in an organization with 100,000 employees, you’ve got a certain attrition, you've got unfilled positions, people retiring, people finding other jobs, people leaving for different purposes. I think there is a humane way to do this. And I'm not I'm not contemplating layoffs at all and I haven't even mentioned that word. That's, again, something you suggested. What I'm telling you is that we're going to manage to get the job done and we're probably going to do it with fewer people, but that doesn't necessarily mean layoffs.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.