At the World Dairy Expo last week in Madison, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue tied the current dairy crisis to economies of scale, telling reporters, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
It might have been refreshing to hear a politician speak so plainly, had the line not been so apathetic that it hit the attending farmers like a kick in the guts.
What topics Perdue didn’t address? Stagnant dairy prices. Corporate greed. Market manipulation. Or a host of other external influences that have been ongoing for decades and more recently have put 2.5 dairy farms out of business each day in Wisconsin over the past year.
“I went to Madison feeling financially scared and emotionally depressed but hopeful,” said Paul Adams, who runs a 500-cow organic dairy near Eleva. "I came home feeling financially scared, emotionally depressed, unwanted and unneeded.”
Adams said the sense he got was that 50-100 cow herds are just going to disappear, and the ag secretary doesn’t seem to care.
“It’s an unfortunate mindset that some people and organizations have, saying we can’t control milk production, that it’s just not American,” Adams said. “What is American about being so focused on the global climate that you’re ignoring the people right here on American soil?”
National Farmers Union vice president Patty Edelburg, who dairy farms in Amherst Junction, was disappointed in the secretary’s remarks.
“It shows the administration doesn’t understand the fight family farmers are up against,” she said.
Brittany Olson left her Barron County farm at 2 a.m. to make the trip to the expo and hear Perdue speak.
“To go through the effort to see the USDA secretary, only for him to say that small farms like ours likely have no future, made me feel like little more than a peasant in a system of modern-day feudalism,” Olson said.
Rhetoric of yesteryear
I wasn’t even born yet during Earl Butz’s reign as Secretary of Agriculture in the 1970s, but even for this borderline millennial, Perdue’s words seemed like a déjà vu. It was as if Butz had risen from his grave to crow once more, "get big or get out.”
Perdue’s comments didn’t go over well with farmers who had gathered in hopes of talking with him about common-sense solutions to the farm crisis.
“To me, it really drew a line in the sand on just where this administration stands,” said Chippewa County dairy farmer George Polzin.
Perdue’s blunt statement highlights a line of thinking often lurking on the periphery but rarely voiced — that clinging to family-scale agriculture is a nostalgic fancy and the future of agriculture surely resides in modern advancements and constant growth. I understand this industry-driven sense. Really, I do.
But I question, where will this road of continued consolidation and pushing for production lead? Is it truly an efficient model if it is shoving hundreds of other businesses out each year and negatively impacting the rural communities across the state? At what point does the consolidation trend stop? This is not a big farms vs. small farms debate. Today, Perdue deemed the 100-cow dairies obsolete. Five years from now, will it be the 500-cow ones in the bullseye? Ultimately, will we be left with just a handful of vertically integrated mega-farms left in the United States?
“It’s not like we’re asking to go back to the days when grandpa kept seven cows,” Adams said. “We’re just asking for the means to manage supply within the industry.”
“The mindset that has been pushed on farmers to continually grow is ultimately pushing them out of business as overproduction forces market prices down,” said Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden.
He noted that accelerated farm loss in recent years is rippling into rural communities and will likely leave a lasting impact on far more than the farmers who are a part of growing farm loss statistics each year.
Minnesota Farmers Union president Gary Wertish also chimed in, noting, “if the USDA really supports the whole of American agriculture, they must drive policy making that earns family farmers a fair price and keeps them on their land, no matter what size they are.”
While dairy has gained a lot of media attention, impacts of market consolidation extend into other sectors of traditional family farm agriculture. On Oct. 2, over 400 ranchers gathered in Omaha to address the impacts consolidation is having on cattle prices, with just four companies now controlling 85% of the beef market. As consolidation has increased, farmers have earned less on every dollar of meat sold to consumers. According to the Organization for Competitive Markets, which organized the rally, cattle feeders in recent weeks have lost $200 per head while the monopoly meatpackers like JBS make over $400.
Perdue pointed to the 2018 Farm Bill as farmers’ saving grace, saying programs within it would help “stem the flow” of farm loss. But farmers don’t want to rely on government programs to prop them up. They just want the same thing they’ve been steadfastly requesting for decades: fair prices.
How does one achieve that when the lion’s share of the food dollar is being snatched away by in markets that have been allowed to rise and fall at the whim of speculators? Corporate greed seems to be writing the rules for American agriculture, and it’s deep-rooted, spanning the past 50 years.
But I sense a fire growing in the belly of the family farmers. Farmers are weary. But there’s a growing flicker that’s starting to feed a change in the narrative. No more will they be spoon-fed a top-down vision for rural America. Instead, I see a drive for a farmscape where fair prices, local food systems, clean water and land conservation are at the heart of farm policy.
How can we achieve it? It’ll take actually enforcing America’s antitrust laws and holding corporations accountable when they try to monopolize an industry. It’ll mean addressing market manipulation. It’ll mean not raising our hackles, as farmers and ag groups, every time someone wants to talk about clean water or livestock siting. It’ll mean continuing to adopt regenerative practices and thinking outside the box so we’re protecting our natural resources for our children and grandchildren. And it’ll mean learning to bridge political divides and find common ground.
This coming year will be a pivotal one, as Wisconsin becomes a stomping ground for presidential hopefuls. We, like Perdue, can choose to accept that the road we’re on is inevitable. Or we can pivot together and work toward a better future, as some already have through efforts like Dairy Together, which is pushing research-based approaches to improve farm income and slow farm loss.
As Adams pointed out, “We can’t wait for (the administration) to save farm country; we are going to have to save it ourselves.”
Danielle Endvick is communications director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family farm organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for farmers, rural communities, and all people. She raises beef cattle and a pair of rambunctious boys on her family farm in rural Chippewa County.
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