Farmers have enough problems without having to deal with a U.S. agriculture secretary whose lack of concern for them is appallingly apparent.
Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited a dairy expo in Wisconsin, where farmers are hurting badly. When asked about the future of the dairy business, Perdue said, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
With little apparent concern for how deeply his message would cut in an audience filled with small dairy farmers, Perdue noted that the economy of scale and other factors made it “very difficult … to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows.”
So that’s the message from this administration. If you’re small, get out. You can’t make it anyway. Don’t expect support. Don’t expect to be valued for your care and personal dedication. This is Darwinian thinking at its most brutal, with small, struggling farmers selected for extinction by a system that sees no place for them.
Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson stopped short of directly criticizing Perdue, but he told reporters that small dairy farms are a tradition “we want to do everything we can to preserve.” He added that larger dairy farms could provide resources that would help smaller operators.
Buffeted by trade wars and bad weather, the recent struggles of farmers are no secret. Minnesota already runs a mental health hotline for overwhelmed farmers, and the University of Minnesota earlier this year launched a rural stress task force to help farmers cope.
In a Star Tribune report earlier this year, David Van Drehle, a dairy farmer just west of St. Cloud, noted that “I made a nice living on 50 cows until three years ago.” Milk prices are in the fourth year of a slump, while big dairies push out farmers like Van Drehle. In the past six years, more than 1,100 Minnesota dairy farmers have left the business.
Farmers deserve a federal government that’s in their corner, ensuring that the playing field is level enough for them to at least have a fair shot. Perdue should recognize that small farms are a vital part of the fabric of rural life in this country, important to their communities and states and customers. Their value cannot be measured by profit margins alone.