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In Atlanta, Agriculture Secretary Says Future Is ‘Bright’ For Farmers, Despite Current Trade Turmoil

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue takes a photo with members of 4-H at the group's annual conference in Atlanta on Nov. 30.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue takes a photo with members of 4-H at the group's annual conference in Atlanta on Nov. 30.
Credit Emil Moffatt / WABE

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue called farmers “some of the most resilient people” you’ll ever run into.

That resiliency, however, has been put to the test recently, as the Trump administration’s trade war with China has cut off a lucrative export market for farmers.

Bankruptcy filings have risen nearly 25% among farmers in the last year. And 40% of farm income during that time came from federal financial aid, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The future of farming was top of mind when Perdue addressed nearly 1,000 high school students in downtown Atlanta on Saturday. They came from across the country for the national 4-H conference.

In his speech, Perdue told the story of an endurance race in Australia. In 1983, it featured an unusual participant among the elite athletes — 61-year-old farmer Cliff Young.

“And guess what?” Perdue said. “While the other racers had to sleep at night, Cliff just kept on running. And not only did he win; he won in record time.”

It was a story meant to illustrate that the hard work and perseverance of farmers was the key to their success.

Perdue himself grew up on a dairy and row crop farm in Bonaire, Georgia. A lot has changed since then Perdue told the teens attending the 4-H conference. He said farmers no longer rely on the sweat of their brow to earn a living.

“It’s not your grandfather’s farm anymore. It’s a lot of precision, technology. It’s probably the best STEM-type of application I’ve ever seen,” said Perdue. “In farming, you’ve got science; you got technology; you got engineering; you got mathematics; you got mechanics.”

But how much will those technological innovations mean if trade barriers with China can’t be worked out?

The effects of the trade war have been so devastating the Trump administration has distributed $28 billion in taxpayer money to farms over the past two years.

Purdue spoke to WABE shortly after he stepped off the stage Saturday.

Emil Moffatt: What do you see as the future for young people who want to be in the farming industry?

Sonny Perdue: I think feeding people is going to be a pretty good demand for the foreseeable future. I think the people who choose a career in agriculture, there’s so much changes out there, so much innovation, so much creativity. It’s an exciting field to be a part of, and I get to see it all over the country.

Moffatt: Agriculture is such a big part of Georgia and the Georgia economy. What do you see as some of the challenges for Georgia farmers these days?

Perdue: Again, farming over the last few years has been kind of tough economically. Farmers are used to that. They’re some of the most resilient people you’ll ever run into. They just keep on keepin’ on. Kind of like the story I told about Cliff running the race today. They endure hardships, and they persist and persevere, even in the midst of unparalleled odds. But I think the future is great. I think if we can get this China deal done, where they’ve committed to buy virtually twice what they bought, in the future. Agriculture is going to be very bright.

Moffatt: Farmers have gotten a couple boosts with aid lately, do you think that’s something that’s sustainable or do you think it’s something that needs to be resolved quickly as far as the trade dispute?

Perdue: From the very beginning, farmers have said they’d “rather have trade than aid.” And that’s what President Trump is working on. I think again, as I said…we’ve already done things with Korea and Japan and other countries there. China obviously is a big deal. If we can consummate that trade relationship again, it’s going to be very bright there. Hopefully, we won’t need any [future aid]. I think this will impact prices and productivity and being able to move products, and that’s what farmers want.