U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue raised some eyebrows last week when he expressed doubt that smaller farms will survive in the dairy industry.
“Big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said at World Dairy Expo, in Madison, Wis. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
It was a curious remark to make at the country’s premier dairy event, especially in a state where small family farms are failing in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.
It’s so bad, the Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee voted unanimously last month to spend an additional $200,000 to help struggling farmers deal with depression and mental health problems, according to the Associated Press.
Perdue’s comments drew widespread condemnation from farming advocates across the country who blasted the remarks as callous and off-putting.
Jim Goodman, board president of the National Family Farm Coalition, said government is supposed to work for the people, not tell them to go to hell. “Five years of plunging farm prices, increasing bankruptcies, and climbing suicide rates were not discussed by Perdue,” Goodman complained. “His message to them was basically, stop whining, your demise is inevitable.”
Author and Esquire contributor Charlie Pierce said Perdue was simply telling a truth that is seldom uttered out loud.
“It takes a rare fella to say so plainly that America is essentially a monopoly culture, and that the ultimate goal of a free market is to achieve the absolute minimal amount of actual competition — especially to an audience of people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by those very dynamics.”
Perdue isn’t off the mark in his view that the industry was leaving smaller producers behind. But if he wanted to be totally candid he should have added that government policies that increasingly enrich big corporations that control our food from farm to fork are contributing to the demise of smaller farms.
At least that’s what advocates of smaller family farms argue — loudly. We hear it from farmers in Franklin County and surrounding counties regularly. Of course, they are almost all small farm operators. They are the Davids competing with the corporate Goliaths.
They complain the big corporations have the power and the clout to dictate the policies and rules that are passed in Jefferson City and in Washington, D.C., that govern the food system. Their power allows them to manipulate the marketplace — pushing down the prices paid to family farmers and driving them out of business.
We were reminded of their power this summer when the Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that prohibits county commissioners and county health departments from passing regulations on confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that are more strict than any state regulations.
CAFOs allow producers to raise a large number of animals — mostly hogs and poultry in Missouri, so far — in a small place, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune. They are the big corporate livestock operators. They have the money. Gov. Parson, himself a small farmer, called the bill a “big win for Missouri farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses.”
Critics scoffed at that characterization, complaining lawmakers sided with “corporate agriculture interests,” adding those interests have damaged the ability of individuals and families to remain as successful farmers.
It’s not easy being a small family farmer these days. Trump’s trade wars and the spring floods have taken their toll on an already shaky agriculture economy.
But give them credit for their endless resilience. Most of them just want to make a living and pass their land on to their children. Maybe it’s time for our government to recognize this and shift its policies to protecting this important segment of America.
Their demise doesn’t have to be inevitable.