The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture is clear about his roots in family farming. In an appearance at Kansas State University to speak in the Landon Lecture series, he offered details on his background in a speech titled, "Leave It Better Than You Found It: What I Learned on the Farm."
First of all, he said, he learned responsibility and the importance of stewardship.
"It started with simple chores such as feeding the bucket calves or feeding the chickens and gathering eggs at around age 6," he said. "By about age 8, I moved up to driving the watermelon wagon to pick up melons. Then by age 12, I was learning to drive tractor and help in the field."
But, he said, even the earliest chores carried a sense of responsibility. "Those calves had to be fed and they were counting on me."
By the time he was a teenager, Perdue said his dad had given him more responsibility for management chores.
He recounted the lesson he learned when tasked with ordering lime for one of the fields his family rented.
"I thought I saw a way to do it better," he said. "I went to Dad and suggested that we skip putting lime on the rented fields and instead spend the money on the fields we owned. My dad was having none of that and I still remember his words.
"'Son,' he told me, 'we are stewards of all the land we farm, whether we rent it or own it. We're going to leave it better than we found it; all of it.'"
Trust and faith
The second thing he learned, Perdue said, was trust and faith.
"I'm reminded of the closing words of the Declaration of Independence," he said. "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
He said the Founding Fathers were farmers, and as farmers themselves the attendees all understand the role of Divine Providence.
"Farmers show trust and faith every time they plant a seed, knowing that only God can bring the rain that will make it sprout and grow."
That trust and faith is tested in times of drought, storms, floods and more, he said, but farmers know they can rely on it.
The third lesson he said, was persistence.
"When you hit those hard times, the devastation of drought that Kansas knows so well, you have to hang in there and find a way to get by and plant again the next year and the next."
In 1994, Perdue said, he was passing along some of the lessons of his childhood to his son.
"I earned a lot of the money to go to college by selling sweet corn every summer," he said., "I wanted him to do the same. His first harvest went well, then came 1994. The sweet corn was looking great. And then came Tropical Storm Alberto and huge flooding. It made it impossible to harvest that sweet corn before it was hard and dry and good only for cattle feed. Only with mountain-moving faith and the persistence you get from it can you get back out there, clean up the mess and plant again the next season."
This year, he said, farmers in his native Georgia have been faced the devastation of Hurricane Michael, which destroyed an excellent cotton crop and uprooted hundreds of pecan and pine trees.
"I thought of Winston Churchill in 1941 saying you can never tell from appearances how things will go. But you never give in, never, never, never give in."
The fourth lesson from his farm-kid days, Perdue said, was optimism.
"To be a farmer, you have to be an optimist," he said. "The road is not always smooth, and you can wind up in ditch. But you need to have faith that it will be better next year, better for my kids than for me, better for my grandkids than my kids."
As for his tenure at USDA, Perdue said he wants to put all those lesson to work with a new motto: "Do right and feed everyone."
Goals for USDA
"I want to build the most effective, efficient and customer-friendly department in the government," he said. "I want to recruit the best and brightest to careers in agriculture. I want the best forest management and rural development that brings a huge increase in access to broadband."
He pledged to modernize how USDA works.
"I think it is a shame you have to leave your GPS-guided combine with its sophisticated data collection system and drive down to an FSA office in town to fill out a piece of paper to participate in a farm program. You ought to be able to do that from home on the internet."
The primary goal for his tenure he said, is the same one he learned from his dad.
"I want to leave it better than I found it," Perdue said.