Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue stands in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 23, 2019. Perdue, ag secretary from 2017 to 2021, spoke Thursday, March 21, 2024, at the 36th annual Celebration of Agriculture dinner in Cedar Rapids. (Washington Post)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sonny Perdue, the former U.S. secretary of agriculture, had high praise for an Iowan when he spoke to 650 people this week at the 36th annual Celebration of Agriculture.

Bill Northey, former Iowa ag secretary

Bill Northey, Iowa ag secretary from 2007 to 2018, “focused on problem-solving and how to make life better for farmers,” Perdue said at the Thursday dinner at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel & Convention Complex.

Perdue said he recruited Northey to come to Washington, D.C., in 2018 as a USDA undersecretary, noting Northey often worked 12-hours days.

“Our responsibility is to leave the land better than we found it,” Perdue said his father told him. “Bill Northey felt the same way. That’s why I appointed him undersecretary of agriculture.”

Northey died Feb. 5 at age 64, a couple of months after his 90-year-old father passed away.

Perdue said Iowa was the first state he visited after President Donald Trump named him ag secterary in 2017, and that was because of Northey’s influence.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor and now chancellor of that state’s university system, recalled the night he was offered the nation’s top ag policy job.

He was having dinner with a cousin, a member of Congress. Perdue’s phone rang. He was going to ignore the call since he didn’t recognize the number. His cousin did recognize it and advised him to answer.

“Sonny, Donald Trump,“ the caller said. ”Are you still interested in being secretary of agriculture?”

Perdue said yes. Trump: “Good! You’re in!”

Perdue said he later was told he got the job because he “looked like a farmer. I took that as a compliment.”

Perdue said he didn’t think Trump knew a lot about agriculture, but he wouldn’t admit it.

When Trump was going to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Perdue advised him to reconsider because the action would hurt American agriculture.

Perdue said he showed Trump a map depicting Trump’s solid support in the nation’s rural areas. “These are your people,“ he told the president. ”The people that elected you and the people you are going to hurt“ by withdrawing from NAFTA.

Trump backed off, and the U.S. stayed in NAFTA, Perdue said.

Agriculture is important to the Iowa way of life, Perdue said. Farmers “embody the American spirit. Be proud of what you do. Preserve the land. Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back.“

Mike Naig, Iowa’s current secretary of agriculture, spoke briefly and also praised Northey, saying he was an “incredible, humble, and hardworking man.”

Iowa is the nation’s No. 1 producer of eggs, corn, soybeans and pork.

More than 325,800 jobs totaling $13.9 billion in wages are directly attributed to agriculture, according to the 2023 Feeding the Economy report released by 25 food and agriculture groups.

The Iowa agricultural industry is responsible for $96.5 billion of direct economic output in the state. When factoring in “induced impact” of linked food and agriculture industries and the spending power of those employed by them, Iowa agriculture’s economic impact more than doubles to $221.8 billion.

Andy Petersen, of the Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network, opened the Celebration of Agriculture evening by telling the crowd “33 percent of the grain produced is within a two-hour drive of where we are sitting today.”

Each table at the Celebration of Ag event had a bucket on it where attendees could place donations to the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program food reservoir, which supplies food for people in need. Petersen announced $7,860.17 has been donated.

Iowa Corn and Central Iowa Power Cooperative were sponsors of the evening.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at a Feb. 28, 2019, Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Perdue, ag secretary from 2017 to 2021, spoke Thursday, March 21, 2024, at the 36th annual Celebration of Agriculture dinner in Cedar Rapids. (Bloomberg)


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