WASHINGTON — Struggling dairy farmers who flocked to an expo in Wisconsin last month hoped to hear some encouragement from one of their own — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a Georgia agri-businessman whose dad had run a small farm.
But some came away angry after Perdue — speaking in a state that lost nearly two dairy farms a day last year — remarked that small farms would not likely survive as the “big get bigger and small go out.”
The remark reverberated across the country, prompting calls for his resignation from some farm groups, angry editorials and even criticism from his own party. Critics said Perdue’s “go big or get out” line played into existing fears that the Trump administration is more interested in helping large corporations than the little guys.
Perdue later said he was only acknowledging the current market reality.
Over the last year, Perdue has emerged as President Donald Trump’s key evangelist in bruising trade wars, traveling the country to give pep talks to frustrated farmers who have seen their incomes drop and exports hit hard by tariff disputes.
As talks between China and the U.S. on a possible first phase of a trade deal continue, Perdue could have some welcome news for this key constituency that helped elect Trump — a third round of bailout payments on top of the more than $26 billion already being spent.
Two economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said a third round of payments for farmers increasingly is seen as inevitable, particularly if a trade deal with China is not reached soon. The amount has not been determined.
Perdue said last week that he was “hopeful” that the pending trade deal would “supplant any type of farm aid needed in 2020.” But a third round of aid could be crucial to shoring up Trump’s support in rural America as the election looms, analysts say.
In more than two years in office, Perdue, a former Georgia governor, has regularly praised Trump. He spent more time in a recent podcast with Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Sanders lauding Trump than discussing farmers’ problems. Trump has said that what he doesn’t know about farming, “Sonny teaches me.”
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, said the White House thinks its support within the farming community is “overwhelmingly solid” in large part because of Perdue’s efforts.
“The president really likes people who know their stuff. And it’s been very clear from very early on that Sonny knows this industry, that Sonny knows the people, Sonny knows the issues, he knows how to communicate the issues,” Mulvaney said in an interview.
As the head of USDA, Perdue has been a disrupter in the Trump mold. He has worked to transform the sprawling $140 billion agency of nearly 100,000 employees by cutting staff, discarding research and rolling back directives on forest preservation and food safety.
Perdue has run afoul of Democrats in Congress, child poverty advocates and science groups, who worry about his climate change skepticism — “I think it’s weather patterns, frankly,” he said recently — and moves they say have weakened the agency’s research wings.
Republicans praise Perdue for his relentless promotion of the administration’s agenda. In recent days he’s been touting China’s alleged commitment to more than double its agriculture purchases from the United States. The trade agreement is not yet committed to paper.
Perdue, 72, may be losing some support in rural America, where farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising. Before the “big get bigger” misstep, Perdue was booed in August in Minnesota over an ill-timed joke that suggested farmers were whiners.
“He’s supposed to be the head of the Agriculture Department, a true representative of farmers, but it felt like he was pretty out of touch with what was going on here in farm country,” said Darvin Bentlage, 63, a cattle producer in Golden City, Missouri.
A third trade bailout would help, he said, “but it won’t make us whole and we don’t want to be making our money at the mailbox. We’d rather be making it at the marketplace.”