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Landon Lecture Series on Public Issues

The Landon Lecture Series

Kansas State University
Office of the President

Grant Hill, Coordinator

110 Anderson Hall
919 Mid-Campus Dr., North
Manhattan, KS 66506


Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Landon Lecture
Nov. 1, 2018

Leave It Better Than You Found It: Lessons in Public Service I Learned on the Farm

Thank you, President Myers.  I have been looking forward to this day. As Veteran’s Day is around the corner, I want to thank you for your service to our nation, not only as President of this great University, but also as the 15th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dr. Flinchbaugh, it is good to see you again. We had a wonderful time together at the roundtable at the Kansas Department of Agriculture last May. You are a legend in agriculture at K-State and across our nation.

Senator Roberts sent his regrets. I am so honored to work closely with Senator Roberts in his role as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Kansans are blessed to have such a statesman and leader serving them in Washington.

I look forward to visiting with Senator Moran later today, and I am also glad to see Representative Roger Marshall, and Lt. Governor Tracy Mann.

Distinguished guests, leaders and organizers of the Landon Lecture Series, it is an honor for me to be asked to speak today. I am humbled to join the ranks of leaders who have stood before this distinguished group, beginning with the one for whom this series was named, your late Governor Alf Landon, in 1966. 

Finally, let me thank the patrons of this series. Your support of this series is an investment in the future.

You are giving students, faculty, and community leaders an opportunity to hear and learn from speakers who hold diverse perspectives. One cannot truly gain a full and rounded education without an exposure to the point and counter-point of differing ideas.

The open exchange of ideas has been a hallmark of Western Civilization. It is built into the very foundation of America.

Our founding fathers crafted our Constitution with checks and balances. They knew that the open and candid exchange of differing views in making law was the only way to truly have a government built on individual freedom and consent of the governed.

Despots and dictators try to silence any voice that does not march in lockstep with their own. Tyrants strangle the exchange of ideas because they fear losing power and control.

This series is not only an investment in a solid higher education; it is an investment in America as an exceptional nation.


K-State and USDA

One of the reasons America is a strong and exceptional nation is because of her investment in agriculture.

Kansas State was the first Land Grant University founded after the Land Grant Act of 1862. While other universities already existed and were improved by the Land Grant Act, K-State was the first one founded as a direct result of the act.

K-State and USDA have a long partnership, serving the agricultural community here in Kansas and around the world. Those research projects include combatting stem rust disease, developing training targeting a pre and post-harvest E-Coli illness known as STEC, collaborating in the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, and isolating a gene that gives rice a resistance to rice blast which currently results in crop losses that could have fed 60 million people.

You are involved with other research universities in a multi-state effort to prevent opioid abuse in the rural areas. You are pioneers in 4R nutrient management (Right source, Right rate, Right time, Right place) to protect and enrich the soil, reduce phosphorus loss and improve water quality.

Of course, you also bring out the best in our youth through the 4-H program.  When raging wildfires destroyed property and killed thousands of beef cattle in southwest Kansas, 4-H clubs stepped in to care for the youngest survivors to shelter and raise orphaned calves.

I do not have the time to list all the ways that K-State partners with USDA to serve agriculture and America. What I want to talk with you about today is a little more personal, but it has a direct correlation with public policy.

The title of this message is, “Leave It Better than You Found It: Lessons in Public Service I Learned on the Farm.”

Let me just share a few of these lessons that shape the way I look at public service and public policy. The first lesson relates to the meaning of responsibility and stewardship.


Responsibility and Stewardship

My earliest memories of working on the farm centered on the daily chores. I started feeding calves when I was six. For some I had a bucket of food and some I had to feed with a bottle.

When I was eight, I got a promotion to driving the watermelon wagon. Then when I reached ten or twelve, I started plowing and planting.

These chores built into me a real sense of responsibility. The animals had to be fed every day, rain or shine, hot or cold. They were counting on me and if I did not do my part, then they suffered.

At that age, I was not using that deeper level of critical thinking when I thought about the motivation for doing my chores. It was simpler than that. I did my chores because my father told me to and I did not have a choice.

As I got a little older, I did begin to think at a deeper level. I recall one very valuable lesson my father taught me.

I was in my teens and thought that I could make decisions about the farm.  My father told me to call the lime people to come and lime a field where we were renting.

We owned some farmland. We also rented other land. As I looked at the expense involve in putting lime on the fields, I had what I thought was a brilliant stroke of genius that could really save us big.

I said, “Dad, you know we are on an annual lease of that land and we might not have it next year. Why don't we lime this other field that you own? We know that it needs it as well.”  I will never forget what he told me and how he looked so intently at me when he told me.

He said, “Son, let me tell you something. You need to understand this right now. We are all stewards. We are all going to leave this life the same way. Whether we own it or whether we rent it, we are going to leave it better than we found it.”

Suddenly, my brilliant idea to save a little money grew dim. That was one of those critical teaching moments for my father and he, being the good father that he was, took advantage of it.

You see, when I was a young child, I did chores because I was told to. I knew the meaning of responsibility. It was doing what you supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, in the way you were supposed to do it.  

When I became a teenager and my father seized that teaching moment. I suddenly understood responsibility at a deeper level. I knew the meaning of responsibility before, but then, I understood the meaning of something greater - stewardship. Leave it better than you found it.

Stewardship and Responsibility was one lesson I learned on the farm. A second lesson was trust and faith.


Trust and Faith

Our Declaration of Independence closes with a powerful sentence. “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.”

The phrase in the middle of that final sentence contains ten powerful words. “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

When a farmer plants a seed, it takes a lot of trust and faith. That is where the rubber meets the road. There are some things a farmer can do to tend a crop. But only God can make rain and make a crop grow.

When our nation was founded, most Americans, including men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were farmers. Those words in the Declaration of Independence about relying on divine Providence were not just political rhetoric.

The founding farmers lived out those words every planting seasons. They put the seed in the ground and had faith that it would grow.

It was not just a blind feeling of “hope this works.” It was trust, faith, and a “firm reliance” on God.

That firm reliance is often tested on the farm. When things do not progress like you hoped they would (and they often don’t) you learn the lesson of persistence.



When I was about 8 years old, we had a bad drought in Georgia. My father, like all the other farmers, had to just keep on getting up every day and doing what he could.

Farmers are resilient. They must bounce back when hard times hit. They must persist. Persistence proves the authenticity of trust, faith, and that firm reliance.

You have probably heard the saying, “a mountain-moving faith.” Persistence is having a mountain-moving faith even when the mountains don’t move.

Last year the cattle farmers in Kansas were devastated with wildfires. The fires raced across the prairie land wiping out cattle, quail, and wildlife in its path. It happened in almost the blink of an eye.

In the month of July 1994, my son had grown a beautiful crop of sweet corn. It was a bountiful crop and was ready to harvest. Tropical storm Alberto stopped over Middle Georgia and dropped 24 inches of rain in a 48-hour period.

Southwest Georgia was flooded. Homes were destroyed. Families were uprooted. The flooding made it impossible to get in to harvest the corn.

By the time we could get into the fields, the corn had dried up. My son experienced what all farmers know can happen to them.

Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Michael roared into the Gulf Coast of Florida. It left a wake of death and destruction.

Cotton and Pecans were going to be bumper crops. Farmers were looking forward to coming out ahead. In a matter of hours, cotton crops were ruined, pecan trees laden with pecans were uprooted like pulling a dandelion from the ground. Pine trees ready for timber harvest in just another year or two were snapped like toothpicks.

It all happened suddenly. Meteorologists told us it was coming, but there was nothing to do except hunker down and pick up the pieces.

Wildfires in the Western and Mountain states, hurricanes and floods in Texas, Louisiana, and the Southeast, tornadoes and prairie fires in the Midwest, and drought are all facts of life that farmers face year in and year out. Farmers are resilient and persistent. 

When I was Governor of Georgia we experienced a horrible drought in 2007. I saw those soybean plants withering away with the leaves brown and curling.

I called on Georgians to join me in prayer. There on the capitol steps we held an old-fashioned prayer meeting asking God to send rain.

You may have heard about it. There were some who enjoyed laughing at the Governor of Georgia. I’ll tell who didn’t laugh. Farmers didn’t laugh.

My reasoning was not only based on my faith, it was practical. I had already been in office four years and had just returned from Washington where we met about the drought and water crisis in Georgia.

During all my time as Governor and after intensive meetings in Washington, it was apparent that there was no bureaucracy in Atlanta or Washington who could actually make it rain.  I just escalated it to someone who could.

We’ve all felt like we’ve had our back against the wall from time to time.  Like the gathering storm clouds could not get any darker.

When things look bleak, I sometimes reflect on what Winston Churchill once said, in a speech to his alma mater, the Harrow School.  It was October 1941 and England was engaged in the war in Europe.  The United States had not yet entered the war.  In the preceding months, England had felt alone in their struggle, but Churchill felt that their fortunes had finally improved.

Churchill told the students:

You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done.”

Churchill continued:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.  In nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” 

That, my friends, is persistence. Persistence is hanging on and never giving in.

What is it the rich topsoil that feeds persistence? That is the next lesson I learned growing up on the farm – optimism.



I have talked about events around our nation that demanded a resilient and persistent attitude. Persistence is rooted in faith and covered with the topsoil of optimism.

When a farmer plants a seed, the farmer has faith that it will grow, but there is also an expectation that it will grow. That is optimism.

You have heard the old illustration of the glass half full or the glass half empty. I learned to be optimistic.

The road through life is not always a smooth ride. Sometimes you might even find yourself in the ditch.

Persistence is pushing the car out of the ditch. Optimism is believing that the road ahead will be smoother.

As I was growing up, even during the hard times, I always felt that my parents believed that I would have a better and brighter future than they had. That rubbed off on me.

These are some of the lessons I learned while growing up on the farm.

·         Responsibility and Stewardship

·         Trust and Faith

·         Persistence

·         Optimism


Lessons Applied to Public Service and USDA

Those four lessons I learned while growing up on the farm are what influences me in public life and public policy. As a public official, I serve the people. As Secretary of Agriculture, I serve the people by faithfully administering the policies of our President.

At USDA, we have a new motto that we try to follow.

It’s “Do Right and Feed Everyone.”

With a world population that is expected to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, the “Feed Everyone” part is pretty much an imperative.

And it’s the “Do Right” part that we work on every day.

And how do we do that?

I want to ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused department in the federal government.


Most Effective

I want USDA to be the most effective agency in the United States Government.  When someone interacts with USDA, I want them to get accurate information in a timely manner.

I want our research programs to be the best anywhere. I want us to be there for the next generation of farmers, ranchers, and producers.

When they want to step out on faith with optimism and a willingness to persist in making a go of it, I want our Veterans programs, our New Farmers programs, and all our other programs for beginning and career farmers as well, to put the information they need in their hands.

I want our research programs to be on the cutting edge. You probably know that I am making some changes to move researchers out of Washington to be closer to the people they serve.

One of my agricultural heroes was Norman Borlaug. He spoke here on March 20, 1979. That’s almost 40 years ago.

He made this observation in his Landon Lecture address, “Many agricultural officers, when they receive university degrees, want to stay in the office or on the experiment station. They try to avoid going out to the fields to see the problems faced by the farmer.” He went on to conclude, “Many have received too specialized a training and suffer from scientific tunnel vision.”

We have great researchers at USDA. I believe that the research will be even more effective if the team is closer to the farmers they serve.

I want our information systems to be effective. Look at organizations like Amazon. You go on line, click a few buttons, and two days later what you ordered is on your doorstep. That’s effective.

I want to see an effective outreach for high school and college graduates to consider agriculture as a real opportunity career. Purdue University published a study a few years ago about the great employment opportunities in Food, Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources, and the Environment. I want to see us effectively recruiting the best and brightest for careers in agriculture.

I want to see an effective Forest Management program for the US Forest Service. With the fire funding fix in the 2018 Omnibus bill, we finally got a toe hold. We can now focus on managing our forests rather than constantly reacting to fire emergencies.

I want to see effective Rural prosperity. I believe we will see a huge leap forward with broadband, high speed connectivity.

These are just a few of the “most effective” programs in the US Government. I not only want us to be the most effective, I want us to be the most efficient.


Most Efficient

When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, he came as your third distinguished speaker in the Landon Lecture series. He told about establishing a blue-ribbon panel to look at state government operations.

When I was Governor of Georgia, we did the same thing. We called it the New Georgia Commission.

One thing I learned is that good government is not sexy, but voters get the fragrance. When you move lines to get Driver's Licenses from 6 hours to less than 30 minutes, voters notice.

I am sometimes astounded when I think about farmers on their combines being guided by signals from satellites, but they must come to a USDA office to fill out forms by hand. That is not effective and it sure is not efficient.

I tasked Deputy Secretary, Steve Censky with leading the transformation of our information systems and technology. I want USDA to be the Amazon of the Federal Government.

Along that line, we have a quiet transformation underway. We have multiple agencies within USDA. All these agencies have unique missions, but they are still part of the large family of the Department of Agriculture.

We are steadily working toward everyone understanding that we are One USDA. This is not to detract from the mission of each agency within USDA. It does unite us as a family working together to deliver the most effective and efficient services to our customers, the American people.

Finally, I want to see USDA as the most customer focused agency in the US Government.


Most Customer Focused

If I want us to be as efficient as Amazon, then I want us to be as customer focused as Chick-Fil-A. A few months ago, we had a Customer Experience Summit at USDA.

We had representatives there from Chick-Fil-A as well as other companies that were known for the best customer service. It is unfortunate that government overall has developed such a customer unfriendly reputation. That will not be the case at USDA.

The lessons I learned growing up on the farm is what drives me at USDA today. 



I go back to the lesson of the lime on the fields. I want to leave it better than I found it. One of the reasons I took this job is because of the future for my 14 grandchildren.

I want to do my part in helping to make their future better and brighter. When I see the FFA and 4-H students, I want to encourage them about their future. I tell them that they are leaders today, not somewhere out there in the future.

I have a certain sense of urgency about leaving it better than I found it. Let me close with another story of my childhood that reflects on the sense of urgency.

We had farmhands that helped us on the farm. We lived close to each other. We played with each other. We were best friends.

One of those boys was named Hollis. He was just a couple of years older than me.

When Hollis was just 10 years old, he died. You can imagine how that affected me as an 8-year-old. I don’t remember how long I cried over losing Hollis, one of my best friends in the whole world.

This life comes to us one moment at a time. None of us are promised tomorrow, or even the next minute for that matter.

I have been blessed to learn some great lessons growing up on the farm. I learned stewardship, faith, persistence and optimism.

As your Secretary of Agriculture, I want to see USDA be the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused department in the federal government.

I want to leave it better than I found it.

And I want us all to “Do Right and Feed Everyone.”

God bless you, God bless K-State, and God bless America.


Remarks as written

Sonny Perdue
Landon Lecture
Nov. 1, 2018