WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will name former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as his nominee for secretary of agriculture on Thursday, a senior transition official said on Wednesday.
Perdue, 70, served on Trump's agricultural advisory committee during his presidential campaign. His nomination, which must be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate, will complete Trump's proposed cabinet just before he is sworn in as president on Friday.
By nominating a former governor from a Southern state, Trump eschewed candidates from major Farm Belt states in the Midwest that produce the bulk of crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat which dominate agriculture exports. Georgia is a key producer of crops such as cotton and peanuts.
While Georgia governor, Perdue had to handle a severe drought in 2007, during which he took steps to cut water usage and at one point led a service outside the state capitol to pray for rain.
Perdue, a Republican, was elected twice as governor, serving from 2003 to 2011. Before that, he was in the state senate representing a rural swath of the state about 100 miles (160 km) south of Atlanta. He switched political parties from Democratic to Republican in 1998 amid redistricting in the state and shifting demographics.
Trump received strong support from the agricultural community as the farm economy slumped amid falling prices for key commodities.
Ron Moore, president of the American Soybean Association (ASA), said he thought Perdue would support agriculture exports.
"I think he will be very much in favor of trade," Moore said in a telephone interview. The ASA, with 15 other farm groups, this month urged the incoming administration to "protect and enhance" agricultural trade and its impact on the rural economy.
Trade, a signature issue during the campaign in which Trump accused China of unfair practices, is critical for the farm economy. U.S. farm and food exports to China were more than $20.2 billion in 2015.
Prices for soybeans rose 16.2 percent during 2016 on strong demand from China, which buys nearly 30 percent of the U.S. crop. Soybean exports helped boost U.S. gross domestic product in the third quarter.
Some farmers are concerned that Trump's criticism of China could lead to deteriorating trade relations and put exports at risk.
An influential Chinese state-run newspaper warned this week that U.S. agricultural imports and U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co could be targets for retaliation in any trade war ushered in by Trump.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau, praised Perdue as a strong voice.
But environmental groups opposed the nominee.
"Farmers need a champion in the USDA who will fight for conservation programs to help farmers be more resilient in the face of extreme weather, not pray for rain," Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.
After finishing his second term as governor, Perdue founded Perdue Partners, a global trading firm that consults and provides services for companies looking to export products.
His cousin David Perdue is serving his first term representing Georgia in the U.S. Senate. The nominee is not related to chicken magnate Frank Perdue.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Tim Ryan in Washington and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney and Richard Borsuk)