But Perdue has not been announced for the post, and Trump has continued to receive a parade of other contenders. When he named David Shulkin to head veterans affairs last week, USDA became the last unfilled Cabinet position.
After Perdue’s appointment was floated, reports indicated that the Trump team wanted to pick a woman or Hispanic for the position instead, in order to add diversity to the Cabinet. Elsa Murano, the former president of Texas A&M, and Abel Maldonado, former lieutenant governor of California, have been prominently mentioned. Both have experience with agriculture: Murano, an expert on food safety, was a USDA undersecretary under George W. Bush, while Maldonado is the child of immigrant farmworkers and owns a vineyard. But the idea that the administration might use the USDA post to “balance” the overwhelmingly white and male Cabinet has sparked controversy in agricultural circles.
“I would say there has been anguish,” Gary Baise, a D.C. lawyer who helped Trump marshal rural and agricultural support during the campaign, told me. “Agriculture is too important to use as a dumping ground for political correctness.”
Baise and others warn that Trump owes a debt to rural voters, from among whom he drew his strongest support in the election. They are not the only ones affected by agricultural policy, of course—everybody eats, and more than 40 million low-income Americans rely on the food stamps the USDA administers. But agriculture, from family farmers to big agribusiness, looms especially large in the landscape, economy, and culture of rural areas.
And rural voters went overwhelmingly for Trump. His 27-point margin over Hillary Clinton among voters in rural areas was 7 points better than Mitt Romney’s margin over Barack Obama four years ago. Many commentators have seen the election’s outcome as the result of a larger-than-ever divide between rural and urban America.
“Rural America would be really disappointed,” Baise said, if Trump is seen as not keeping faith with the agricultural community. The smart money is still on Trump picking Perdue, according to Baise, a well-connected Republican ag-politics veteran who helped Trump assemble his agriculture advisory team. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment. A source in Perdue’s orbit said he still wants the job and is mystified by the delay.
For now, the ag world watches and waits for an agriculture secretary to be named. On Friday night, they will gather at Washington’s Grand Hyatt for a black-tie inaugural ball—the “Piggy Prom”—formally known as the Inaugural Gala Celebrating American Agriculture.
But the difficulty for Trump won’t end once he chooses a USDA head. Farmers and farm experts are also wary of some of his signature policy promises. As the top ag journalist Jerry Hagstrom wrote recently in National Journal Daily, “The selection of Agriculture secretary may be simple in comparison with figuring out both the right policies and the right politics for rural America and agriculture.”