WASHINGTON — When Georgia Senator David Perdue talks about growing up with his cousin, former Governor Sonny Perdue, he recalls him driving a tractor about his peanut and corn farm.

“He learned to love the land, take care of it and husband it,” said Senator Perdue in a recent interview. “No one loves the land more than a farmer.”

Sonny Perdue goes before the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing as President Trump’s pick for U.S. Agriculture Secretary.

Perdue is a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party before serving two terms as Georgia governor from 2003 to 2011. He holds a doctorate degree in veterinary medicine.

The image of Sonny Perdue as a good old Georgia farm boy who knows the struggles facing family farmers and embraces their love of preserving the land to feed the world is under challenge from his critics.

The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group and the Sierra Club paint a very different portrait of Perdue. They see him as a governor who received taxpayer-funded farm subsidies while in office, used his position to reward friends with tax breaks and is too skeptical of climate science.

They fear his ties to big agribusiness will result in eliminating federal regulations to protect against pollution and ensure soil conservation, clean water and safe food.

“President Trump promised to drain the swamp,” said Colin O’Neil, agricultural policy director for the Environmental Working Group. “He’s nominating someone whose political career epitomizes the very swamp he pledged to drain.”

The group cited a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Perdue while governor signed a bill that excused him of $100,000 in property taxes. The group said Perdue also received $278,000 in USDA federal farm subsidies between 1996 and 2004.

“Was Perdue like thousands of other city slickers whose land ownership made them eligible to receive subsidies that should be flowing to family farmers?” it asked in a blog post.

Politico noted that even before being confirmed by the Senate Perdue hired Heidi Green, a partner in his export business, as his special advisor at the agriculture department.

Perdue and his supporters dismiss criticism of his past as politics. They contend he has both the first-hand experience and and historic knowledge of farm policies to handle the job of overseeing one of the largest federal departments, one that includes the U.S. Forest Service, the multi-billion dollar food stamp program and domestic trade restrictions on certain farm products.

To satisfy conflict of interest concerns, Perdue has signed an ethics agreement and put his business assets in a blind trust, something he refused to do as governor of Georgia.

He also resigned his leadership position at Perdue Business Holdings, which has real estate and fertilizer subsidiaries, and stepped down from the board of directors at the National Grain and Feed Association and the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

Perdue has no relation or affiliation with the poultry producer, Perdue Farms, known widely for its chickens.

“I will not participate personally or substantially in any particular matter in which I know I have a financial interest directly and predictably affected by the matter,” his ethics agreement reads.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the agriculture committee, told reporters questions about Perdue’s business interests and past controversies “will obviously come up” at the panel’s hearing.

But Grassley said he expects Perdue, who has the backing of President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, to win approval. Perdue is the last of Trump’s cabinet appointments to await Senate confirmation.

Perdue, known for his signature cowboy boots and farm-themed ties, will likely be grilled about Trump’s proposed agriculture department budget reduction of $4.7 billion, or one-fifth of the current spending level. The new budget would be $17.9 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The cutbacks would affect rural clean water and development projects, county level USDA staff and statistical services that farmers rely on for their planning.

He is also likely to be asked about the impact of a tougher immigration policy on migrant farm workers, and the allocation of fewer federal dollars to the food stamp program, designed for low-income households to obtain a more nutritional diet but often misused to buy junk food.

Senator Perdue, who is on the agriculture committee, focused on the cousin’s background growing up on a farm near Macon in central Georgia.

Senator Perdue, who grew up on a dairy farm nearby, said his cousin would rein in an agriculture department that’s been strangling farmers with regulations.

“There used to be a time when agriculture agents would show up and try to help,” said Senator Perdue. “Now it they come with a notebook of forms.”

Contact reporter Kery Murakami at kmurakam@cnhi.com.

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