Rural America needs a leader

Today, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee will consider the nomination of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to be the next secretary of Agriculture — one of the last Cabinet officials to be nominated by President Trump. After announcing its pick, the White House took seven weeks to submit the official paperwork needed for the Senate to start the hearing process, while the Agriculture Department languished without a leader. This wasn’t just a bureaucratic delay with no consequences. It meant rural America has had no voice in the Cabinet for months — and it shows. Now more than ever, we need the next secretary of Agriculture to be a champion for rural America.

I grew up in the small town of Clare in Northern Michigan. Small towns and rural America embody many of our nation’s greatest strengths. First and foremost are its people: hard-working people with a lot of common sense. People who want to do well for themselves and their family — and do their part for their communities and their country. The people of small towns and rural America have made their living and supported their families by creating small businesses and running family farms, which for decades have formed the economic backbone of our country. Even today, the food and agriculture sector supports 16 million jobs. Small towns like mine, and similar communities across the U.S., should be celebrated and strengthened.


Just last week, we saw what happens when rural America doesn’t have a seat at the table in this administration. In the face of a struggling farm economy, President Trump proposed cutting the Agriculture Department by 21 percent — the third-largest cut to any federal agency, including elimination of support for rural infrastructure programs.

Our farmers and families deserve better. While it’s clear the Trump administration doesn’t consider the Agriculture Department to be a high-priority — the more than 46 million people who call rural America home would disagree.

Farm prices are down nearly 50 percent from their highs just a few years ago and the weather risks from a changing climate made risk management tools more important than ever. The economic recovery that created millions of new jobs has largely bypassed small towns and rural America. In too many places, unemployment remains high and families struggle just to make ends meet.

As the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, I plan to press the nominee on what he will do to address some of the most critical issues for these communities. We need a knowledgeable leader with creative ideas at the wheel. I will also be urging Gov. Perdue to be a strong and vocal advocate for rural America in the Trump administration.

The USDA is the department that brought electricity to much of America in the 1930s and is now financing high-speed broadband deployment to allow those communities to participate in the 21st-century economy.  It was the Agriculture Department that mass produced penicillin during World War II and supports life-saving research today. Whether it’s laying fiber optic cable, supporting scientific discovery, ensuring our food supply is safe, feeding our children and veterans, or safeguarding our forests and natural resources, the Agriculture Department plays a vital role in almost every aspect of American life. 

The agency deserves a leader who understands that. I look forward to hearing Gov. Perdue’s vision for all of the families in small towns and rural communities who deserve a champion for their jobs and their way of life.

Stabenow (D-Mich.) is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.