GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The same question dogs Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue almost everywhere he goes along this highway lined with frozen cornfields, egg barns and Civil War landmarks where most people voted for Donald Trump.
“What are you hearing about President Trump wanting to scrap this NAFTA thing?” asked a row crop farmer, referring to the trade agreement Trump slams as a bad deal but which has put more money into many farmers’ pockets. “How bad do you think NAFTA is going to affect the agriculture and business world?”
“You mean how bad if we scrap it?” Perdue interjected, leaning his microphone in close. “Bad.”
The room of a few dozen farmers and local USDA officials palpably relaxed, and even laughed a little.
Trade is the most visible tension point for Perdue, Trump’s top emissary to rural America — a swath of the electorate that helped propel the Manhattanite to victory but fears the fallout of withdrawing from trade deals.
The 71-year-old former governor of Georgia gamely persevered on an 11-hour trek this week through the heart of this critical swing state, promoting the president’s agenda, while also allaying anxieties about his positions on trade, immigration and farm policy have caused some farmers, ranchers and rural Americans.
As one of the few seasoned politicians in the Trump Cabinet, Perdue has a clear advantage as he takes the administration’s agenda on the road. His fortunes weren't made on Wall Street, like many in Trump's cabinet. And he’s kept an unusually low profile compared to lightning rods like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Instead, Perdue has spent the last eight months sustaining an unforgiving travel schedule across more than 30 states — a journey that’s included an RV tour through the Midwest, tours of rose fields in Arizona and a stop by the world's largest carrot processor in California.
The secretary, with a down-to-earth Southern charm, assures that in the end, differences will be resolved in a way that works for farm country.
“When over 20 percent of every dollar depends on foreign sales in pork, poultry, our grains and other things, we’re very mindful of that,” Perdue assured a nervous pork producer during a meeting at a local USDA office here. “I think we’re seeing some good news in NAFTA negotiations. I think Canada and Mexico have figured out the president’s serious about that. While it’s created some anxiety in the ag community and to USDA, to some degree, I think ultimately, we’ll get a good deal done there.”
The farm sector’s loud defense of NAFTA has also caused some internal tension in the Cabinet. Last year, when Trump was reportedly drafting an order to pull out of NAFTA, Perdue went to the White House armed with a map showing how such a decision would inflict the most harm on the rural communities that voted Republican.
Last fall, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross repeatedly and publicly dismissed the industry’s insistence that withdrawing from the pact would be catastrophic.
Ross, a wealthy investor, called that “an empty threat” and also said the ag industry’s “screaming and yelling” was making NAFTA negotiations more difficult.
Asked about Ross’ comments in November, Perdue lightened the mood: “He told me to tell y’all he’s sorry,” he said.
While trade is the most visible source of tension for Perdue, he’s also straddling the fence on farm and nutrition programs.
The secretary endorses a strong farm bill, which Congress is due to renew by Sept. 30, while also defending White House budget priorities. Last year, the budget proposed large cuts to food stamps, crop insurance and rural development programs that are authorized by the farm bill — proposals rejected out of hand by agriculture lawmakers. The administration is expected to send its fiscal 2019 budget to Congress in a few weeks.
Perdue told reporters on his tour through Pennsylvania that America must get its “fiscal house” in order — including the farm bill — because he doesn’t want to dump $20 trillion in debt on the next generation, which he reminds people includes his 14 grandchildren. (He is also very engaged with young leaders in agriculture, with members of Future Farmers of America present at most of his events.)
This balancing act leaves many wondering where Perdue really stands, particularly on crop insurance, a popular risk management system where taxpayers cover a majority of producers’ premium costs. The secretary often says that farmers prefer to plant for the market, rather than for a government program, but he argues crop insurance can’t be so “rich” it becomes a lifestyle.
“We don't buy home or car insurance hoping our cars crash, or our houses burn,” Perdue said, offering a critique that disconcerts some crop insurance boosters. “It's a different mindset that farmers have to be reminded of on a regular basis. Insurance is a cost to protect against devastation, not an investment where they pay $1 and are supposed to get a $1.10 back.”
Perdue also walks a fine, if fuzzy, line when he talks about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, which serves one in eight Americans, including a growing number of low-income people in rural areas.
The farm bill priorities he rolled out Wednesday here in Pennsylvania emphasize "work as a pathway to self-sufficiency." He says he expects Congress to adopt stricter requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.
“While America is a very generous and compassionate nation, I think there’s an expectation that the people who are able to work in this growing economy of low employment, then there should be an expectation of that,” Perdue told reporters.
He declined, however, to endorse cuts, or say how many people he wanted to move off the program.
“We want those people who need it and deserve it to have it — in fact, I’d be in favor of even enhancing their ability — I think if we focus on the ones who really need that assistance, to get that, then we may be able to do more.”
Perdue’s skills as a retail politician were apparent here as he kept a sun-up-to-sun-down schedule with back-to-back round tables, tours and town halls with farmers, business leaders, USDA officials, food bank employees, ag researchers and land-grant university professors. The trail stretched through the heart of central Pennsylvania, from State College to Gettysburg.
State College, where Penn State University sprawls, and Harrisburg, are located in the only central counties where Hillary Clinton beat Trump — two blue islands in a sea of deep red, where Trump won several counties by a 2-to-1 margin.
At a food bank in Harrisburg, he praised the value of partnerships by borrowing a phrase from another former Georgia governor: “If you ride by the road and you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he didn’t get up there by himself!”
When a USDA official stationed in Gettysburg raised a thorny question about his reorganization plan for the department, the secretary defused tensions with a hearty laugh: “Now we’re getting down to the moose in the middle of the table, aren’t we?” And then he answered the question.
And when the small audience at the local USDA office didn’t have enough questions, Perdue egged them on. “Come on y’all," he said. "You know some things I need to know. Get off it!”