You probably missed it, but one of President Trump’s remaining cabinet members was finally confirmed last month. As of April 24, Sonny Perdue, a businessman and former two-term governor of Georgia, is the country’s new secretary of agriculture.
Though he’s anything but a household name, Perdueand the decisions he’ll make over the next four yearswill be deeply significant for North Carolina. Only one month in, he’s taken steps that may seriously impact the state’s small and mid-size farms and rural communities.
Perdue sailed through his confirmation hearings, with no mention of the ethics probes and fines he incurred during his time as governor. Critics have referred to him as a “mini Trump,” and indeed, some of Perdue’s first actions lived up to the billing. He issued a statement about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commitment to religious freedom and loosened some Obama-era school lunch nutrition rules.
But during his confirmation hearing, he pledged support for local food systems and programs for smaller farms, telling Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, “These programs will receive my full attention, as they are the future of agriculture in America.”
Unfortunately, some of his recent actions have called that support into question. Earlier this month, Perdue outlined the first USDA reorganization since 1994. He proposed combining USDA divisions in charge of farm subsidies and land stewardship, areas in which the department interacts directly with farmers.
So far, so good. But the reorganizationwhich doesn’t appear to need congressional approvalalso includes eliminating the undersecretary for rural development. That’s a mission area that covers grants and loans for rural housing, utilities, and businesses, and includes funding for things like hospitals, libraries, broadband Internet, food pantries, and community gardens; it has often provided a lifeline to rural areas. And that, say small farm advocates, is very worrying.
“The concern is that all of those programs, many of which have to do with regional food systems, will become less important,” says Rochelle Sparko, policy director for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, based in Pittsboro.
The USDA says that the reorganization will “elevate rural development agencies to report directly to the secretary of agriculture,” but rural advocates say that’s just spin; the undersecretary for rural development already reports directly to the secretary. After the reorganization, says Sparko, “those programs will no longer have someone in the subcabinet advocating for them. It’s my experience that programs that don’t have someone advocating for them tend to go away.”
That’s particularly troubling in light of the first budget Trump presented in March, which reduces USDA funding by 21 percent and essentially guts the rural development area, massively cutting discretionary funding for business and infrastructure programs. His 2018 budget, released last week, cuts the USDA’s discretionary funding by 20 percent. That budget will invariably be amended by Congress, but it serves to illuminate the administration’s priorities.
While changes to rural development could seriously affect rural communities across the board, farmers would be particularly hard hit. For example, one valuable program within rural development is the Value-Added Producer Grant, given to small and mid-size farms aiming to process their own productsto pickle and sell their vegetables, for example, or slaughter and direct-market their pasture-raised animals.
It’s a very important source of funding, says Sparko. “It allows [farmers] to diversify and hold onto money from processing. It can make a huge difference in their bottom line.”
North Carolina farms received $1.4 million from the grant in 2016.
It certainly made a difference for Saxapahaw’s Laura and Ches Stewart, who run Haw River Mushrooms. They received a $50,000 grant this past October and are using it to rebrand their product, build a website, and develop new packaging.
“I’d say it’s game-changing,” says Laura Stewart. “I was able to leave my full-time job, and it’s helping us to professionalize the farm and take it to the next level; now we’re expanding production to meet market demand.”
In the form of new jobs and more money, that expansion eventually trickles down to the community. In the case of Greene County’s Simply Natural Creamery, the benefit to the community was more direct. The creamery received a grant in 2014 that allowed it to begin bottling and distributing its milk; when Hurricane Matthew hit last year, the company worked day and night to provide the area with milk.
“We were about the only milk company that was able to deliver for a few days,” remembers Michael Fulcher, the company’s marketing director.
For those farms, says Scott Marlow, executive director of Pittsboro’s Rural Advancement Foundation International, the answer is to diversify into local markets. “Farms that sell to the direct market have a significantly higher survivability rate than farms that do not.” Plus, he adds, investing in farm entrepreneurship has a strong track record of creating jobs in rural communities.
The bottom line: “A time of low commodity prices is not a time to stop investing in rural communities,” says Marlow.
But rural communities obviously aren’t the Trump administration’s first priority. Remember, this is a government that agreed to provide eastern North Carolina with just 1 percent of the funding Governor Cooper requested for Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.
It’s a strange way to thank rural North Carolina for overwhelmingly supporting Trump.
N.C. Senate Budget Proposal Eliminates Funding for Minority Farmers
If North Carolina’s farmers have it hard, imagine how tough times must be for the state’s minority farmers. Black farmers around the countryincluding many in North Carolinawere systematically discriminated against by the USDA for decades, as outlined in a giant class-action suit that was finally resolved in the last decade. The discrimination resulted in a steep decline in their numbers; in 1978–2007, North Carolina lost 74 percent of its black farmers.
Those figures have finally started to stabilizein large part because of programs like the state Department of Agriculture’s Small and Minority Farm program, which meets individually with farmers and connects them with resources and technical assistance.
But the state Senate apparently thinks there’s no need for any more help. The Senate’s budget that came out on May 9 eliminates the Small and Minority Farm program, which serves African-American farmers along with small farmers of all types. The funding is only $237,000, but apparently that’s still too much for a sector that contributes nearly $800 million to the state’s economy.
“I think farmers across the state would feel a loss without the division,” says Savi Horne, executive director of Durham’s Land Loss Prevention Project, which works closely with the program. “[The office] is very dedicated, and really does work to serve limited-resource farmers across the state.”
The state’s final budget will be hammered out over the next month. Meanwhile, the program is continuing to plan its annual conference, to be held at N.C. Central on June 20-23, which will highlight black farmers and foresters around the Triangle.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Betting the Farm.”