RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Senate is scheduled to vote today on the nation's next agriculture secretary, a full three months after President Trump announced his choice for that job. If confirmed, Sonny Perdue will run a department slated for major cuts in the administration's proposed budget. Those cuts could end up affecting the lives of farmers, many of whom are seeing their incomes fall for the fourth year in a row. Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer has more.
AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue sailed through his Senate committee hearing and his confirmation is expected. But that may be the easiest thing he'll do. The Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary for three months. And Perdue faces a long to-do list. Iowa State University political scientist Max Shelley is concerned that the delay in his confirmation sends a message.
MACK SHELLEY: I think it is crystal clear that this is not the number one objective of the current Republican leadership at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
MAYER: Shelley thinks that's odd because it was farmers and other rural voters who played key roles in Trump's victory.
SHELLEY: That's basically running the risk of poking your fingers in the eyes of your supporters. You've had very little payback - positive payback - at this point for the rural sector of the economy and the electorate.
MAYER: The focus for many right now in farm country is getting seeds in the ground. Robbie Maass and his parents, Leah and Bob, open the sliding doors on their machine shed near Ellsworth, Iowa. It's another in a string of gray rainy days preventing them from planting. Bob Maass kicks the tires of a giant blue planter and taps at the wheels to knock off last year's mud. Robbie Maass joined this farm operation just a few years ago.
With sustained low prices for corn and soybeans, it's been tough but he's lucky his parents have made the major investments, like this high-tech equipment. But they can't get into the fields until the weather dries out. It's frustrating for farmers to sit and wait. Leah Maass says that extends to waiting so long for the top ag post to be filled. Still, she's confident Sonny Perdue is a good choice.
LEAH MAASS: He was a producer and yet he's had experience with trucking, the transportation industry and so many other aspects. And then he's already served public office, so he knows - he understands the rule making and the regulation side of it.
MAYER: Perdue grew up on a dairy farm, trained as a veterinarian, worked for decades in family agribusinesses and served two terms as governor of Georgia. While in office, he faced ethics complaints about his ongoing involvement in the family businesses. Part of the reason his confirmation is taking so long is that Perdue had to untangle himself from those interests. While the Department of Agriculture has been without a secretary, farmers have grown nervous as farm economics got swept up in tough talk over trade.
Mexico, for example, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. corn, is threatening to get its grain instead from South America. Farmer Kurt Hora, who heads the Iowa Corn Growers Association, says that would be a serious blow to U.S. farmers. Hora worries that among the president's proposed cuts to agriculture is money spent on promoting U.S. products abroad.
KURT HORA: We want to make sure that we don't lose those markets because it takes a lot more to get a market back than it does to maintain and to build one.
MAYER: Like the Maass family, Hora's trying to get his crops in the ground. And like many other farmers, he's looking forward to having an agriculture secretary who can advocate for farmers in this new administration. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer near Ellsworth, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "AND ALL THROUGH THE WINTER HE HID HIMSELF AWAY")
MARTIN: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.
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