Meeting Mr. Secretary

A dairy farmer from Colorado settles into an upholstered chair that’s tucked away in a maze of offices in the government’s largest office building: the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s there for an opportunity not many get. He’s meeting Mr. Secretary — Sonny Perdue.

 Josh Cleland | Cleland Dairy | Erie, Colo

Josh Cleland | Cleland Dairy | Erie, Colo

It’s the city where history books come to life. Ornate architecture, telling statues and intriguing museums flood every block. Senators and diplomats hustle down busy sidewalks, and sneakers are a commuter mainstay. It’s just another Tuesday in Washington, D.C. 

The morning is just getting started, and a breath of fresh air walks into the hotel lobby. He stands out from the tailored suits and somber faces — he’s wearing a smile, which is typical for him. His expression perfectly complements his nice jeans, nicer boots and blazer draped over his arm that’s covered by a button-up shirt. He’s not in Colorado anymore, but he still brought a little Colorado with him.

 

Growing up on a dairy farm in Erie, Colo., Josh Cleland has similar characteristics of many dairy farmers — kind, warm, respectful. He is the first to say hello and shake your hand. Well spoken, with much of his dialogue generating a light-hearted feel and many mentions of his new bride, Sarah. They’ve been married since July. 

He hops in his first-ever Uber and makes his way to the front steps of the government’s largest office building — the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He’s here to interview U.S. Secretary Sonny Perdue.

As Josh walks in, so does his authenticity — through security, across the slick floors, pass the official portraits of President Donald Trump and Sec. Perdue, up the staircase and into a window-framed office. With rocking chairs for furniture, “the cage” as it was formerly called, is now known as “the front porch” — an intentional decision by the secretary to make the space feel more like home.

He’s greeted by the secretary’s team and makes his way through a hallway, another office and into a grand office, outfitted with a shellacked-wooden desk and an oversized marble nameplate with “Secretary Sonny Perdue” etched into it. A conference table and a small seating area, along with a striking view of the Washington Monument, furnish the rest of the space that feels more like a formal meeting area than personal office. 

Promptly at 8 a.m., Mr. Secretary walks in. It’s a surreal moment that’s felt in the air. He and Josh exchange hellos, and then he looks around and asks his communications specialist if this is where the interview will be. She and the photographer stand near the seating area and begin to arrange two chairs where Sec. Perdue and Josh will sit. Then he motions to just come into his office, a more intimate space. 

Papers are sprawled out across his desk, a jar of Georgia peanuts, reminiscent of his home state, sit on a table with many photos of his wife, Mary, his children and 14 grandchildren. He and Josh settle into diagonal upholstered chairs, and then, they start talking.

“Mr. Secretary, I got invited to this very humbling experience to interview and get to meet you,” Josh says. “My group was telling me that you are from a dairy farm back when you were just a little guy.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” jokes the secretary. 

Born in Bonaire, Ga., Sec. Perdue grew up on a dairy and diversified row crop farm in the state he would eventually oversee as governor from 2003 to 2011.

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“Those cows don’t care if it’s your
    birthday either.”
      
 —Josh

 

“Well, the dairy business, I think, taught me a lot about work ethic and consistency and persistence and perseverance and those kinds of things, obviously,” says Sec. Perdue. “If you get up and you don’t feel very well, it’s not an option to sleep in.”

“No,” quips Josh. “Those cows don’t care if it’s your birthday either.”

“That’s right. It’s a whatever-it-takes mentality. I think that kind of carried on with me. That’s a benefit. You know the field can wait a little bit if you need to plow, but the dairy cows can’t. There is a discipline that I think (it) brings to one’s life.”

From farmer to veterinarian to businessman to politician, the secretary’s career exposed him to many things in and out of the agriculture industry — one that touches everyone, in some shape or form, on the planet. 

“Did you ever think you were going to be in this spot when you were working the farm,” Josh asks.

“I wanted to be a veterinarian from the ninth grade, and I accomplished that, but I had no idea — I really had no aspiration for any elected office,” responds the secretary. “People would say, ‘How did it all come about?’ Literally, I said, ‘I got too close and they pushed me in.’”

When a state legislator decided not to run again, Sec. Perdue, who had been serving on the planning and zoning committee for his county, decided to run. He was elected to the state Senate, becoming majority leader just four years later, and within six years, he was president pro tempore.

“Georgia, as it turned out, was not going in the right direction and I tried to get all of our congress members to run for governor and none of them would, so I’m determined not to give a guy a free pass. When the legislature came and said will you run, I did.”

Eight years later, he returned home to run his family’s grain elevator business, one he had taken a hiatus from during his time in office, but then he received a call from President Trump — almost out of the blue. While Sec. Perdue hadn’t planned on continuing his career in D.C., he accepted the president’s request with excitement to make a difference. And on April 25, 2017, he was confirmed as the secretary of agriculture — the 31st in U.S. history.

“That’s how I got here.”

Here. One begins to wonder if “here” is in the space of policy, or if “here” is this office — this moment. A moment, or string of moments depending on how “moment” is defined, that the secretary took to dedicate to a young farmer from Colorado — for a publication that didn’t even have one issue to stand for. Time away from his phone, computer and email — away from preparing for his meeting at the White House that’s slated for 9 a.m. — for this one farmer. But it’s more than just talking to one farmer: it’s connecting with an industry.

Not even six months in and Sec. Perdue went on a state fair tour to connect with many, young and old, in the agriculture industry. He also made time to visit with farmers affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that occurred in late summer. 

Boots on the ground. Farmer to farmer. That’s his approach.

“As an authentic young person growing up on the farm having customers throughout my career on the farm, I know that thrill of a great crop and a good price,” reminisces the secretary. “I know the heartbreak of despair of a flood or a drought or a hail. So, I think that gives me an advantage here to understand the heart and the spirit of American agriculture. So, it’s a great opportunity for me.”

“That’s an awesome story,” responds Josh after soaking in the secretary’s history. Josh is like an eager student, ready and excited to learn. Fully taking in each and every second in this quaint office. 

“But I tell people, Josh,” says sec. Perdue. 

There’s something about him throwing Josh’s name into his sentences that make everything so much more personal — more intimate. From moving into his office rather than the oversized one, to commenting on Josh’s boots, to saying his name — everything the secretary does and says is with unequivocal genuine intention. 

“When they ask me about when I was elected governor, I said, ‘What does a farm kid with a veterinarian degree (and) a career in agribusiness know about being governor?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s pretty simple. I already have the boots, the glove and the shovel.’”

Laughter fills the room — he’s talking about shoulder-length gloves large animal veterinarians use, which Josh is quick to answer through his chuckle. 

“I think they’re (farmers) a true American spirit of entrepreneurship, risk taking; that’s what build this country, and dairy farmers, in particular,” bridges the Secretary after the sound of laughter slowly fades.

“In my opinion, there is nothing healthier than milk. I think it’s a very natural substance. I think as a dairy nutritionist, that anyone knows every animal has to have a certain amount of fat in their diet. That nutritionist goes and balances that very well. Our dairy cows actually eat more scientifically than we do.”

“They do,” says Josh. “Whenever I give my tours, I tell all the kids, and even the adults in the college tours, that the cows eat a lot better than, you know, most people. They have a complete nutrition plan.” 

It’s easy to hear the passion in Josh’s voice while he talks about his 450-cow dairy. He grew up there, and lives there now with Sarah. While wearing a blazer, preparing for an interview and exploring the Capitol are things Josh is proving to be great at, dairying is where he excels. And now he’s getting the opportunity to tell the top agricultural leader about his livelihood. 

The hot topic of nutrition is an ongoing battle of what’s healthy and what’s not — from fat to carbs to labeling standards. While many may not realize it, the USDA plays a part in a variety of programs, including the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, School Lunch Program and more. 

“That (SNAP) touches kids and families all over the country,” says Sec. Perdue. “I had a classmate of mine, when she told her granddaughter that I was going to be the secretary of agriculture and it had something to do with school lunches, she said, ‘Great. Can Mr. Sonny make school lunches great again?’”

The answer to that little girl is yes. 

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“When people ask me,
‘what do I want out of USDA,’
I say it’s pretty simple —
 I want it to be the best.”

—Secretary Perdue

“We are again proposing going to 1 percent flavored milk rather than the skim milk. Kids were taking that and shoving it in the trash because it was not palatable and some of the inflexibilities that our school lunch professionals deal with were very troubling. So, it’s a great opportunity; it’s a great place to be. I think my background fits into that.” 

While this started as an interview, it’s flowed into a natural conversation between two farmers — one that’s simple and thought-provoking all at the same time. But with time running out, Josh has one more question in his queue. He asks a question farmers and consumers alike would be interested in: What do you hope your legacy to be?

“I think again when I leave, I want people, not just necessarily us in the USDA, but I want our customers to say, ‘That was the most well-run, the most customer-friendly, the most effective, most efficient organization, and the best-ever government response and government interaction I ever had was with the USDA when Sonny Perdue was secretary.’ That’s what I want to do. I want to be a customer for an organization. I want us to think of the people that we serve and not here in the bubble of D.C. thinking about agrarian policies that don’t make any sense.”

 

Roughly 23 minutes have gone by and their conversation turned out to be as natural as Josh’s state. For Josh, this will be one he’ll never forget, and maybe it will be just as unforgettable for Mr. Secretary, too. Because you never know, one day this conversation could be in the history books. 

Photos are snapped, and thank yous are said. Josh rides in his second-ever Uber and makes his way back home, while Sec. Perdue heads to the White House as part of just another Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Except in the secretary’s view, he’s touching more than the limits of the Capitol — he’s touching the world. 

And really, Josh is too. One cow, one gallon, one acre, one generation at a time.